Thursday, January 12, 2012
Over the holidays I was reading a great book, Our Noise: The story of Merge Records, the label that got big and stayed small, published in 2009 to celebrate to 20th anniversary of that US indie label. It served as a fascinating counterpoint to the somewhat chequered corporate history of Flying Nun, and its various twists and turns at the hands of various bosses driving the label.
Merge was founded by two members of the band Superchunk, Laura Ballance and Mac McCaughan, who also wrote the aforementioned book, in conjunction with writer John Cook. The book uses mostly straight quotes from the people running the label and the bands, giving you a good sense of what these people are about and how they run their label.
Merge has a strong association with New Zealand music, through picking up varous Flying Nun acts for US release, such as the 3Ds, The Cake Kitchen, David Kilgour, Alf Danielson (of Chug), The Bats, and The Clean.
Mac told Pavement magazine [December 1994 issue] that he first got exposed to Flying Nun acts "...when I went to school in New York. There's a lot of good record stores there, and friends of mine who worked on student radio stations in Boston were listening to things like Goblin Mix and This Kind of Punishment, and I'd just go downtown and buy the stuff. And then we started buying everything that we could find that was on Flying Nun.
"Back home I'd been listening to Black Flag and other hardcore bands, so at first the Flying Nun stuff was a little fey sounding. But the songs were so good and the production so lush sounding in a way, it was fairly stripped down and not at all slick, and it seemed to be trying to achieve different things from most of the bands that I had been listening to..."
here's a handful of snippets from the book...
They toured The Clean in the US in 2001... Superchunk was scheduled to play at CMJ in 2001 - their new album was due for release a week after the Sept 11 attacks. Mac: "The Clean were scheduled to play that same night as Superchunk. Those poor guys had arrived from New Zealand on the 10th to wake up to that on the 11th. They wanted to leave the US immediately, but of course they couldn't... it was a really emotional night... The Clean did a really powerful version of this old song of theirs called 'Too much violence.' The air smelled burnt. I was really glad we made it happen in a way that seemed to make anyone who came feel a bit better."
Probably the best indication of how they run their label is the way they dealt with Arcade Fire...
Following the huge success of their debut album on Merge (which went on to sell 400,000 copies in the US), Arcade Fire started taking meetings with various major label types, desperate to sign them. They went into these meetings as research, aimed at finding out exactly what these people at mainstream labels did. They were contracted to do another album for Merge, and fully intended to honour that commitment.
This attention led to Mac finding himself meeting with Seymour Stein (Sire Records). Mac says "His [Stein's] attitude was 'Hey, this record is doing so well, you must not be able to handle it. How can we work together?"And the answer is 'We can't'... We hadn't known Win and the band very long, and while they seemed like great and principled people, when someone is throwing large sums of money at you, it becomes easier to justify bending those principles a bit.... it was a relief when it became clear that they were just taking in the whole scene, and not shopping themselves around."
In 2006, Arcade Fire were up for a few awards at the Grammys, and took Mac along. Mac: "The Grammys last forever... it's in a basketball arena, and they sell everything that they normally sell at a basketball game for food except they dont sell alcohol... When they said 'next up, Sting', that's when we were like 'okay, let's go to the parties'."
They'd heard that Bruce Springsteen was making the rounds of the Grammy parties, and spent the rest of the night turning up at a party to find that the Boss had just left. They caught up with him at the Interscope party.
Mac: "The first thing I saw when we walked in was Dr Dre playing pool... U2 was holding court there, too...."
Mac got to meet Springsteen, shake his hand and say "thanks for everything. You're one of the reasons that I'm involved in music at all". Mac says he then talked with Jimmy Iovine for a while. "I didn't tell him that I thought he stole Trail of Dead."
In 2007, Mac was asked to appear at the Future Of Music Coalition's annual conference in a panel discussion. It kicked off with an introduction that listed the music industry's woes; sales were down 14% year on year, 2,700 record stores had closed in the previous 4 years, Tower Records had gone out of business the year before...
Following this tale of gloom and doom, the moderator asked Mac how Merge was weathering the storm. "Business is great for us," said Mac. " The last few years have been our best ever. People may be buying fewer bad records, but I don't see them buying fewer good records."
RELATED: Mr Knox and the Nun (Chris Knox interview excerpt from Forced Exposure, 1993)
Flying Nun sound and pictures ( Flying Nun artwork)