Our Noise to Admire: The Story of Merge Records Is the Story of Indie Music

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It’s highly unlikely that Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan envisioned running a label twenty years after founding Merge Records; after all, they “never [even] had a five year plan.” [emphasis added] But that’s what they’ve found themselves doing. And it just so happens that what began “as a lark” is now one of the most successful labels in the country.

Indeed “Merge’s slow and steady rise from Laura’s bedroom to the Billboard Top Ten is, in many ways, an object lesson in what went wrong with the major labels.” And John Cook’s excellent chronicle of the rise, Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small

, can be considered an object lesson in what goes right when someone truly digs the music. But Ballance and McCaughan aren’t just avid fans, of course; they’re players with a fan base of their very own. In fact, their band Superchunk is both a large part of Merge’s success and one of the most influential indie bands ever.

In other words, Ballance and McCaughan have managed to balance commerce and art in a way very few even thought possible. And after resounding — and courageous — successes with the likes of The Magnetic Fields, Spoon and The Arcade Fire, and a catalog even the best-endowed major label would envy, they remain responsible for much of not most of the music we admire.

To mark the release of John Cook’s oral history of the indie powerhouse, Flavorpill provides a timeline of Merge highlights. Sit back, sing along, and view the accompanying photo slideshow here>> Merge’s Durham office, Photo credit: Maggie Fost

Twenty Years of Merge Records: The Highlights

Summer of ’89 Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan meet Sub Pop founders Bruce Pavitt and Jon Poneman in Seattle, decide to start their own label on the drive back across country. The name Merge comes from a road sign Laura reads aloud. It was either that or “Pronghorn Antelope.”

September 1, 1989

Merge releases its first 7-inch — Metal Pitcher’s “A Careful Workman is the Best Safety Device”

New Year’s Eve 1990

Chunk plays CBGB’s Record Canteen, after the New York Times confuses the band with “a [avant garde] group of three percussionists” they change their name to Superchunk.

April 1990

Superchunk “Slack Motherfucker” b/w “Night Creatures” (7-inch)

Summer of 1990

The Wet Behind the Ears Tour w/Supechunk, Geek and Seaweed

April 4, 1991

Superchunk opens for Sonic Youth at L.A.’s Whiskey a Go Go

April 1991

Superchunk records No Pocky for Kitty with Steve Albini at Chicago Recording Company on the way home from the West Coast

September 19, 1995

Superchunk Here’s Where the Strings Come In

March 26, 1996

Neutral Milk Hotel On Avery Island

June 8, 1999

The Magnetic Fields 69 Love Songs (Vols 1, 2, & 3)

Summer of 2000

Merge digs Girls Can Tell; decides to sign Spoon

October 17, 2000

Spoon Loveways EP

June 8, 2004

The Arcade Fire “Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)” (7-inch)

September 13, 2004

Pitchfork praises Funeral; “all hell breaks loose”

September 14, 2004

The Arcade Fire Funeral

May 10, 2005

Spoon Gimme Fiction debuts at 44 on Billboard; Merge cracks the Top 100

September 8, 2005

The Arcade Fire performs “Wake Up” with David Bowie on Fashion Rocks at Radio City Music Hall

March 6, 2007

The Arcade Fire Neon Bible

July 10, 2007

Spoon Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga debuts on Billboard‘s Top Ten

March 18, 2008

She & Him Volume One

May 5, 2009

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band Outer South