Celebrating Independence with… Merge Records

In honor of Independence Day, KEXP is saluting some of our favorite indie record labels whose DIY-spirit helped revolutionize the music industry. As an independent radio station ourselves, KEXP is thrilled to give a 13-gun salute to these pioneers with a series of label spotlights through the Fourth of July.

When I look up at the walls around my desk at KEXP, I see that familiar logo staring back at me from my posters of Lambchop, Teenage Fanclub, Magnetic Fields, The Clientele, Versus, David Kilgour, Polvo, Portastatic — it’s pretty clear, Merge Records is one of my favorite labels around.

Where do I even begin in describing the amazingness of Merge? Anyone who loves independent music needs to read the book Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small by John Cook with label founders, Mac MacCaughan & Laura Ballance. I get an almost-embarrassing surge of fist-pumping-pride reading about how this humble label started out of Laura’s bedroom in college, and is now the home to heavy hitters like Arcade Fire, Spoon, and, well, duh, Mac & Laura’s own band, Superchunk.

Laura Ballance, founder of Merge Records, with Superchunk in the KEXP studios 10-14-2010
// photo credit: Jackie Canchola (view set)

Laura was super-kind enough to chat with me about the label over e-mail:

What initially inspired you to start an independent label?
We started it in July 1989. We were in college and things got a little slow in the summer so we figured it was a good way to entertain ourselves. Plus, there were lots of bands in the triangle area who would be around for a while and then kind of peter out because there was no easy way to progress beyond playing a few local shows at the time. We figured if we put out some 7″s it would give bands a way to reach an audience beyond the local music community. And give the local music community something to bring home too. Plus, Mac was in like five bands and wanted some of his music to be captured for posterity. I think I was in two of those bands. What I was doing need not have been captured for posterity.

What is your favorite part of running an indie label?
Getting to know all of our excellent artists, and I also love it when we get to tell them their record has done well and we get to send them money, and of course, that we are helping to get a lot of great music out into the world.

What is your least favorite part of running an indie label?
As the label has gotten bigger we have less of a friendly relationship with some artists and more of a business relationship. It was bound to happen, but I don’t have to like it. Also, I kind of hate the amount of plastic involved in this industry. We are putting a lot of garbage into the world (along with a lot of great music).

What is YOUR favorite independent label, besides your own?
There are so many great labels, I hesitate to answer this question, as I am bound to leave some out that I should not. I will tell you some of my favorite labels that were around when we first started Merge that really inspired me: K Records, Dischord, Homestead, Sub Pop, Scat, Glitterhouse, Amphetamine Reptile, Touch and Go, Matador…..uh…I know I am forgetting someone.

(I felt the same way as I tried to put together this video round-up of some of my favorite Merge artists…):




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