But you'd be surprised with the variety, and the toil, to be found in the answers. Some of those interviewed wanted to think for minutes on the issue, some for days. More still found it, quite simply, too difficult to answer. A few wanted to hear what others had to say, and some continued for minutes and minutes on end, closing with, "I guess I've said too much now." Almost everyone--from current roster member Eric Bachmann to employee Christina Rentz--was worried that he or she had said too much, had been overly sentimental.
You don't have to be a music nerd or a hipster to get this story. Since its inception, Merge has fought for its share of a market dominated by overfed, over-budgeted and over-hyped juggernauts. And, in a way that the accountants who run record labels these days would not understand, they've won. Merge Records, against the odds and the stack of money that such a deal would bring, has resisted the pull of multi-billion dollar major labels, staying true not because of some pretentious indie credo, but because it's what they believe in. That's a lesson anyone can--and everyone should--learn.
So, what does Merge mean to you?
"...I was in Angels of Epistemology, and, at the time, Merge was very new. We were never really the type of band that was into making records or finding a label, but we were just making music as friends and having fun. They were very into all this really diverse, unusual, cool music that was happening here. Looking back, I wish we had thought more that the public might be hearing those songs, but, regardless, it was very cool of them to put it out so early in their career. They do things their way and they are very uncompromising in that. It's a model of how that type of business should be run."
-- Sara Bell, whose first Angels of Epistemology 7-inch was the sixth recording released on Merge Records and whose upcoming album with Shark Quest will be the 241st recording released by the label.
"...After being on Elektra and Alias and WARM, Merge is the best of both worlds for me. WARM was one man and an intern, and Brian [Causey, head of Athens-based WARM Records] was one of my good friends. I've always been lucky because my labels have always been my friends, except for Elektra and Alias. I've known Mac and Laura for 12 years, so obviously I chose to go there for a reason. Merge has a staff and they've been doing this for a long time and they have a machine for getting things done, but it's not such a machine that it's inhuman. I've lived in so many places in my life that it's hard to call just one place home, but the people there sure do make you feel good and welcome when you're there."
-- Eric Bachmann of Crooked Fingers and Merge original Archers of Loaf, speaking from outside Seattle's Jupiter Studios, where he is recording an album with Mark Fevier, due out on Merge in early 2004.
"...In every facet of the entertainment business--be it books, music, movies--there is always a press, label or studio that stands out among the rest. For 15 years now, Merge has been a tremendous force in shaping indie rock. Even though they might have roots in Chapel Hill and the rest of the area, they are that force worldwide. I can count on my hands the labels that have fulfilled the needs of not only indie music stores but also for any music store for so long. I don't know if you can say music is ageless, but Merge has always not only given an ear but also had an ear for where music is going. They have not only been a springboard for new talent, but they have been a label where people can stay and grow. I'd personally like to thank Mac and Laura for helping keep Schoolkids Records viable for the last 30 years."
-- Ric Culross, manager of Schoolkids Records since 1992.
"...When I first started working here, I would see Superchunk play and I became a fan of the band. It sounds super cheesy to say, but it's been great getting to know them as people and considering them friends. It's awesome that a label like Merge has not only been able to stay active but to flourish. They've been through all these renaissances. They did it with Neutral Milk Hotel and again with The Magnetic Fields. They keep building this label by just putting out music that they really like."
-- Chad Nelson, long-time publicist for Touch & Go Records.
"...Merge was my first true, out-in-the-real-world job, and Merge and Mac and Laura were extremely influential people in my life. They proved that there can be feelings and trust and love for your employees and, in their case, the bands on the label. I care so much about all the people around me now. It's a business, but if the business somehow crumbled, that level of friendship with people is still left above all else, above the business. And they've been amazing in their support of me moving on after Merge and doing other things, like with Mac even wearing an OCSC shirt on this last Portastatic record."
-- Tricia Mesigian, owner of Orange County Social Club and Merge employee from 1995 to 2001, including a heroic stint as road manager for the "nine-to-14-member band" Lambchop.
"...The main thing with Merge is freedom, because they give the bands complete creative and artistic control. Wes [Phillips, The Rosebuds' drummer] made the point that they trust their audience to accept what artists can create when they are in their natural state. They are able to take a chance...and they did that by letting us do our record the way we wanted to. And that's courageous."
-- Kelly Crisp of The Rosebuds, whose Make Out was released in 2003, crossing the Delaware Memorial Bridge on her way to a show in New York City.
"...Our relationship with Merge is pretty new, but before we started working with them I had a knowledge of Merge and knew that they had a reputation for being a very good independent record label that was good to its bands. I didn't know much about Superchunk, but I knew that if we were going to be on a label in America, Merge was at the top of the list because...they are true to themselves and will only sign bands that make good records, and that's quite a compliment. Mac and Laura are like these two mysterious people to me. I look forward to finally meeting the ones at the head of the table, so to speak."
-- Tracyanne Campbell of Camera Obscura, the Scottish pop band whose Underachievers Please Try Harder was released stateside by Merge this year and who will be playing one of 17 dates on their first North American tour at Merge Fest.
"...They support my habit of unleashing my depressing songs on the world, and that's important. And I feel that they make decisions more with their heads and minds rather than by trying to hit the goldmine, and that's an unusual thing now no matter what kind of company you're talking about. And people respect them for it."
--Singer/songwriter M. Ward at home in Portland, where he is finishing the follow-up to 2003's Transfiguration of Vincent, due out in January on Merge.
"...Merge came from a collection of independent record labels that share a pier with the bands on the label. The people generally on top of the label are sympathetic with the people they're working with because most are musicians, too. Merge kept a regional focus even when that wasn't the obvious thing to do. They didn't have a provisional look of themselves or their area. Mac and Laura, as individuals, let their personalities dictate the way they behave, and the label is honorable because they are honorable. The survival of a record label depends on two things: first, the sale of its current records, and second, the long-term sales of its catalogue. And Merge is able to thrive by associating itself with bands that they like, and not losing respect for them when they gain notoriety. To do it for a decade or more in any business is remarkable, but to do it in the music business is astounding."
--Inveterate rock producer and D.I.Y. philosopher for two decades, Steve Albini, taking a day off to sharpen his billiard skills at his Electrical Audio Studio in Chicago.
-- Laird Dixon of Shark Quest and Zen Frisbee at home in Chapel Hill.