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Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small Paperback – September 15, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Freelance reporter Cook and Merge cofounders McCaughan and Ballance trace the history of the North Carolina–based record label that started in a bedroom and now releases some of indie rock's biggest names. The story is composed as a book-long conversation between McCaughan and Ballance (also founding members of Superchunk, hailed as the next Nirvana in the 1990s and one of Merge's first major hits) and myriad other voices from the music industry. Started in 1989 in Chapel Hill, Merge always put music and musicians first, with McCaughan and Ballance hand-stuffing the label's first seven-inch releases and eschewing contracts in an effort to keep things friendly. In a prime example of its dedication to artistic vision over pure profit, Merge took a gamble on Stephin Merritt and Magnetic Fields's ambitious three-disc opus, 69 Love Songs, when any major label would have balked. That record made numerous top 10 lists in 1999 and has sold more than 150,000 copies. While some of the label's artists may be beyond the scope of the casual music fan, bands like Magnetic Fields, Spoon and Arcade Fire demonstrate how vital Merge is to the indie rock landscape. (Sept. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Merge always put music and musicians first. . . .[B]ands like Magnetic Fields, Spoon, and Arcade Fire demonstrate how vital Merge is to the indie-rock landscape.--Publishers Weekly

From small beginnings, twenty years later, Merge has become one of the top independent labels in the world. --NPR's Sound Opinions

One of the most respected imprints in an often disreputable industry, Merge has defied the odds by releasing some of the finest rock and pop music of the last 15 years. --Chicago Tribune

The fact that they exist and that they've survived is really kind of amazing these days. It's really difficult and they've done really well. --David Byrne --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (September 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565126246
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565126244
  • Product Dimensions: 7.6 x 0.9 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #389,426 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By William R. Elenbark on August 29, 2009
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
An absolutely fascinating account of the life of independent label Merge Records and the band (Superchunk) that gave it life, over the past 20 years. What was started by Mac and Laura of Superchunk fame to put out 7" records of their bands and their friends' bands in Chapel Hill, NC, in the late '80s has become one of the most influential and successful independent labels in the music business. While other labels and major labels are imploding with massive sales declines in recent years, Merge soldiers on during its most successful era ever, with only one guiding principle - they put out the music of bands that they like, regardless of commercial viability, and will stay with the band as long as the band wants, regardless of sales. Profits are split 50-50 with the artist (major labels are more like 85-15) and there is never any thought of interference or suggestion of what the artist should do. As a result, some of the most successful albums in indie rock history have been released on Merge, including Neutral Milk Hotel's immortal "In the Aeroplane Over the Sea", The Magnetic Fields' 3-CD "69 Love Songs", Spoon's "Girls Can Tell" and The Arcade Fire's "Funeral".

The book consists largely of interviews with those involved over the last 20 years (the bands, the Superchunk members, friends, family, roadies, etc.), told in an impressive narrative form that reads as a fascinating story of a group of music outsiders who learned how to make the music they loved outside the corporate system, and make enough money to survive for 20 years and counting. The history of Superchunk is intertwined with the history of Merge (it's about a 50/50 split in the book), so for any even casual fan of this classic band, this is a must-read. But the story of Merge is equally fascinating, as are the in-depth chapter-long discussions of several Merge artists, including The Arcade Fire, Spoon, The Magnetic Fields, Matt Suggs, Lambchop, and Neutral Milk Hotel. I can't recommend this enough.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Aaron Leclair on December 27, 2010
Format: Paperback
This oral and visual history of the important indie label Merge Records paints the right picture, of that brief time in the 1990s when guitar-based indie rock was flourishing, and a single that resembled Pavement in even the slightest was a first-class ticket to a (guaranteed to fail) major-label deal. The text, interviews, and photos do a great job transporting me back to this time period (my favorite photo in this book shows an indie record store in the NYC metro area with some really nice, conspicuously-displayed sale prices on the latest as of 1995 Spent and Versus records) - which says a lot, since I grew up years after this "golden age" of indie rock.

Additionally, it serves as an ode to the rise of independent labels; more particularly, it celebrates the fact that today, bands can make very comfortable livings in the indie-label system with minimal sacrifice of artistic control. Were it the Nineties all over again, Merge powerhouses like Destroyer, Spoon, and the Arcade Fire would have flown the coop to the majors after only one or two albums: and speaking of Spoon, they did once, into a disastrous deal with an Elektra records - whose new management was not thrilled about them. But if you want to know more about Spoon's story, I'd suggest delving into this book.

Unfortunately, at points, Our Noise comes off as propaganda for Merge Records, presenting the label and its stable in a self-serving manner. As a fan of Merge Records and of many Merge recording artists, I see and believe the hype; however, if you're less familiar with the label, it might be hard to peel the layers of praise for the label, its bands, and its philosophies, and see the book as what it is: an "underdog" story of the triumph of independent music and the labels that make it happen.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Kyle T. Costello on February 20, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Preface: Superchunk is my favorite band. But this book -- told via a well-crafted string of dialogue from musicians, producers, A&R reps and friends -- is not just about Superchunk. It's about a community of musicians who got together with the sole purpose of creating and sharing music.("Come on, fellahs, let's get together and write a song!") I think of Merge as the big brother who lets you peek at his LPs when he's not looking and might let you make a mix tape to share with your peers. (That's how I learned about Iron Maiden as well as Anvil. Remember Tank: The Filth Hounds of Hades?) Through my interest in Superchunk (thanks to a mix tape from Todd -- forever grateful), I discovered a lot of other great bands on the label. Certainly it helps if you are a fan of any of the featured bands: Superchunk, Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel, Lambchop, Butterglory; but it's a great story and gives insight into the changing music industry (the decline of corporate rock). I also like to think Our Noise might inspire you to get off your butt and make Your Own Noise heard -- whether it's home-brewing, writing songs, RPGing, gardening, knitting whatever. (The perfect graduation gift? Required reading for Harvard MBA?) Now, perhaps this book would be boring to many people. After all, I grew up with Merge discovering the bands, seeing the shows (Halloween at State College changed my life). But, I just love how the story is revealed with honesty, humor, thoughtfulness in their own words. Who is they? A lot of different people. In fact, there is very little narration. This book is really well constructed, much like a documentary film. The relationships are vivid and real. There's a lot of pride, but little pretension. Great photos, too. Mysteries still remain. Like why was that guy yelling hot dogs and hamburgers at Merge 10?
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