Merging new music with good business

Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: College Music Journal launches its annual music marathon today in New York City. CMJ is required reading for fans of independent music. And no independent label has done more to bring a lot of bands from obscurity to the top of the college charts than Merge Records.

Merge emerged 20 years ago in North Carolina, a joint venture of two punk rockers, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan. Over the past two decades, they've signed a whole catalog's worth of what eventually became of indie staples.

That was in order Spoon, The Magnetic Fields and Arcade Fire. And there are too many others to name. Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan are out with another collaboration, a book about Merge called "Our Noise." Good to have you both with us.

MAC MCCAUGHAN: Hi.

LAURA BALLANCE: Thank you.

Ryssdal: How did you guys go about finding the bands to put on the Merge label?

MCCAUGHAN: I mean when we started the bands were already kinda there for us. They were making music already. I mean our own bands, and our friends' bands. And once we started putting out singles, then it was just a matter of can we get the money together to do the next single, you know, whether it's with our own band Superchunk, or Chunk as we were called initially, or Erectus Monotone from Raleigh or Pure from Asheville.

BALLANCE: And back then also it seems there was so few record labels, that all you had to do was ask someone even if you didn't really know them. Hey, can we put out a seven inch of your music. And they'd go, oh yeah, sure.

Ryssdal: Is that what you guys set out to do 20 years ago, sort of be curators of this independent music streak?

BALLANCE: No, I think, well, when we started it felt more like what we were doing was documenting where we lived at that time musically. Because back then it seemed like all these great bands would be around for a few months, and then they'd just break up, and there would be no proof that they ever existed.

Ryssdal: We're going to play a little bit of music from a Merge band. It's called Neutral Milk Hotel. So we're going to run this and then I'm going to come back with a question.

Ryssdal: So first of all, is that a Theremin in the background, do you guys a think? Or what?

MCCAUGHAN: That's a saw.

Ryssdal: Is it really? Oh, that's so funny. Because I asked my producer that question and she said no, I think it's a saw, and I was like, oh, get out of here.

MCCAUGHAN: Your producer knows what she is talking about.

BALLANCE: She knows a singing saw when she hears one.

Ryssdal: You know, she picks the music for the show, and she gets lots of props for that. But how do you know when you listen to a demo that that's something that you want to sign. Because that one it took a little while to get going, it was a little off beat. I mean, Mac, how do you know?

BALLANCE: I mean, it's interesting because that was Neutral Milk Hotel as you said, and that song I think is one of their most beautiful songs. But the first thing that we got from Neutral Milk Hotel was this cassette, and it was the whole first album by Neutral Milk Hotel called "On Avery Island." And it's very dense. Not only is there saw, but there's trombones, there's distorted acoustic guitars, it's just, it's really special, it's very unique. I mean, I think what we look for, what we listen for, and what always strikes us is really good songs. But also some sort of personality that when you hear it, it strikes you as something singular.

Ryssdal: Mac, when you guys really sat down and got serious about this, did you actually have a business model, or did you say, well, you know we'll split it 50/50 and you know, plow our money back into our production and those kinds of things.

BALLANCE: We still haven't had that sit down. Right, why start now? But even when we were as small as we could possibly be, we had models to look at in terms of other labels that existed at the time. Dischord in Washington D.C. TeenBeat in Washington D.C. Sub Pop, of course. We had labels that we could look at, and see how did they do it, what distributors did they use, what stores did they get their records into and everyone was open to talking about it. There was no trade secrets among independent labels.

Ryssdal: Is there a song you guys can agree on that we should go out on after this?

BALLANCE: Maybe we should go out on a new song from the latest Clean record and we can hear "In the Dream Life You Need a Rubber Soul."

MCCAUGHAN: Oh, that a good one.

RYSSDAL: All right, "In the Dream Life You Need a Rubber Soul." Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, the co-founders of Merge records. They've got a new book out with John Cook, it's called "Our Noise: The Story of Merge Records, the Indy Label that Got Big but Stayed Small." Guys thanks a lot.

BALLANCE: Thank you.

MCCAUGHAN: Thank you.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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