Undertaking a book documenting the history of Merge Records is not small feat, but author John Cook with the help of Merge co-founders Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance managed to do just that, and remarkably so.
Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records breaks Merge's 20-year history into easily digestible pieces, documenting the label through the eyes of the bands whose releases bears Merge's trademark "potato stamp" (with the exception The Magnetic Fields' album The Charm of the Highway Strip—and yes, there's a story there). There are many chapters dedicated to the bands who serve as the original backbone of the label; Superchunk, Matt Suggs (of Butterglory and White Whale), Neutral Milk Hotel, The Magnetic Fields, Spoon, Lambchop and Arcade Fire each tell their own stories. Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel did not participate in the making of the book, but his intriguing rise to stardom is told through those close to him during his active years.
This book is a reason for music geeks (such as myself) to rejoice. The candidness of the interviews in this book, especially those by Mac, Laura, Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster, are insightful, sad, joyous and hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. While the label has made excellent decisions to find itself stronger than it's ever been, there are some heartbreaking stories along the way, one of which is documented Matt Suggs chapter.
Stephin Merrit certainly comes off as the biggest jerk in the book. He talks about fighting with Merge over the label's logo being on one of his albums and bluntly lampoons Merge's indie ethos. Yet, with all his snarky, snide comments, you still can't help but love Merritt's unabashed attitude.
While the triumphant stories of The Magnetic Fields, Spoon and Arcade Fire and some of the chance happenings that brought these triumphs to fruition are interesting, it's the mistakes in Merge's history that are the most intriguing. For example, early on they did not know to withhold a portion of royalties because albums can be returned to the distributor. Or having only handshake agreements and not signing contracts in the early years, which led to losing And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead to Interscope. But the mistakes are not as interesting as Merge's ability to take these lessons on the chin and march forward.
This book is a must-read for anyone working in the music business. Merge has proven that the music business is not dead, though the excess and glamor of the major label system is likely short-lived. As Mac said to a Future of Music Coalition summit in 2007, "People may be buying fewer bad records, but I don't see them buying fewer good records."
Our Noise will be released on Tuesday, September 15 via Algonquin Books. Mac and Laura will be making appearances at local indie book stores to take questions, read from the book and even play a few songs. Check out those stops below.
09.15.09 - Durham, NC - The Regulator Bookshop, 7:00 pm
09.17.09 - Chapel Hill, NC - Bull’s Head Bookshop, 3:30 pm
09.17.09 - Raleigh, NC - Quail Ridge, 7:30 pm
10.02.09 - Asheville, NC - Malaprop’s, 7:00 pm
Order Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records here.