Book Review: Our Noise: the Story of Merge Records–John Cook

Our Noise: the Story of Merge Records, the Indie Label that Got Big and Stayed Small, by John Cook with Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

This 2009 book would be considered mandatory reading for a course about Triangle Area music at the turn of the twenty-first century, were anyone ever to teach one.  But it would also be informative entertainment to anyone curious about the world of independent music, and might even contain helpful object lessons to folks who want to try wading in those murky waters themselves.  It’s the story of Triangle-based Merge Records, co-founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, and its journey from a home-grown imprint designed purely to release 45’s by local punk outfits (including McCaughan’s and Ballance’s own legendary group Superchunk) to international indie rock flagship.  While there is a narrative thread connecting the book’s chapters, a lot of the text is composed of quotes from Merge bandmembers, employees and cohorts, making the whole project feel like a conversation among old friends, which on some level it is, and that fact goes a long way toward explaining the secret of Merge’s success.

The reader follows the label’s improbable trajectory from its release of records by much loved but painfully obscure groups like Erectus Monotone, Pipe, and the Angels of Epistemology, to its emergence and recognition as an independent powerhouse with both the brains and the muscle to sustain the likes of household name bands like Spoon and the Arcade Fire.  The abiding question throughout remains: How did they do it?  How did they manage to survive, let alone thrive, in the predator-driven minefield of the popular music industry in an era that has seen sweeping revenue loss by Merge’s biggest corporate competitors?  A few answers might be:  A)  by staying realistic and not over-committing themselves financially, B)  by insisting on fair and transparent dealings with its bands (often with no written contract), and C)  by consistently choosing to release music because the Merge staff loved it, not because they were tempted by dancing dollar signs.  Here’s some perennially good advice to anyone seeking a recording contract:  Beware of promises made by major record label executives!

The whole book contains illuminating stories and great photo spreads, but for me the most fun parts were the stories about the label’s early travails and triumphs.  Maybe nostalgia has me in its grip, but balance sheets and marketing campaigns figure a little too heavily in the later pages, as they necessarily will when talking about big business.  I prefer the early anecdotes, when it was all about hand-assembling 7-inch singles fresh from the pressing plant in your living room, selling them one at a time out of the back of your van, and driving off with a truckstop coffee toward the next show.  DIY all the way.

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