Program Report – Merge Records

Boy, I really need to get out more often.  The only two performers whose names I even recognized during the program were Mick Jagger and Barbara Streisand. The latter was the presenter when one of Merge Records’ bands, Arcade Fire, was the unexpected winner of the Album of the Year at the 53rd Grammy Awards.  So unexpected, that Barbara had to look at the envelope to make sure she got the name right (see it here).

Rotarian Keith Artin introduced music writer Dave Menconi who interviewed Mac McCaughan, one of the founders of Merge Records and the band Superchunk. (OK, I’ve heard of them too, but my immediate word association would have been “cookie”.) It was good that Mr. Menconi was there because his questions sounded a lot more intelligent than anything I could have dreamed up. Keith, if you don’t remember made the natural career progression from the COO of TROSA to Label Manager for Merge records last year.

The program was advertised as being about the Durham music scene but it really ended up being about the evolution of Merge Records from the second bedroom of Mr. McCaughan’s partner Laura Ballance in 1989 to the 15 employees that it has now at its offices on East Chapel Hill Street in Downtown Durham.

Several other things that I learned from the interview:

–          MTV doesn’t do music videos anymore. Am I the only one that didn’t know this? What do they do? Because of this, highly produced videos are much rarer than they used to be.

–          Mr. McCaughan considers Merge in the “bush leagues” of the industry, not the big leagues. What emerged is that most of the groups under their umbrella are fiercely independent and much more committed to the music and their followers then to becoming superstars. I’d call that a different league, not the bush leagues.

–          In spite of this Merge may be a new model for the industry that has been turned inside out by digital file sharing on the internet. It’s an interesting model because everybody seems to give the music away. If you don’t believe me check out the websites below.

–          A lot of this music is released on what they call “7 inch records.” I had to look this up. They really are pressed vinyl records that I used to know as 45s. (I wonder how you play them in the car?)

–          Mainstream radio stations are no longer a big promotional vehicle for music and artists. College radio stations are. Mr. McCaughan mentioned the good ones at Duke, UNC and NCSU. NCCU also has a great station.  I know this because I had it programmed in my car radio and had listened to it for months before I realized that it belonged to NCCU. It has a different vibe but is really fun to listen to.

–          The biggest promotional vehicle for these artists is touring giving live performances. Is that a throwback or what?

I had a lot of fun exploring the websites of Merge Records, Superchunk, and Arcade Fire. It reminded me of the days back in the 60’s and 70’s when I was creating a need for hearing aids listening to rock and roll. In fact, that’s where my word association for Superchunk came from. It seems like everybody back then got cravings for things like chocolate chip cookies and hot Krispy Crème donuts when they were listening to that music. We used to call it the munchies.

– submitted by Jay Zenner



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