MERGE RECORDS: One Step at a Time

“With the first one, it came as a pretty good surprise,” says Merge Records sales and marketing guru Paul Cardillo, discussing Arcade Fire’s 2005 debut Funeral. For a label that’s been around since 1989, their first album to break into the Billboard Top 200 came as a welcome surprise-immediately scoring the venerated independent imprint their biggest success in the era of indie rock breakthroughs. Fortunately, they were ready.“With the first one, it came as a pretty good surprise,” says Merge Records sales and marketing guru Paul Cardillo, discussing Arcade Fire’s 2005 debut Funeral. For a label that’s been around since 1989, their first album to break into the Billboard Top 200 came as a welcome surprise-immediately scoring the venerated independent imprint their biggest success in the era of indie rock breakthroughs. Fortunately, they were ready.

“We thought they’d be big, but we didn’t think it would blow up the way it did,” he continues, admitting that things became even more hectic when Arcade Fire’s 2007 follow-up landed on the second slot of that same chart. “But, ultimately, I think we’ve been around for a long time, and we’ve grown slowly and smartly…and by the time we’re dealing with records that are hitting No. 2 on Billboard, we’re ready for it. Certainly, the level of work has increased, but I don’t think anyone is particularly taxed by it.”

One of a handful of independent labels to survive and prosper both before and after Nirvana’s 1991 breakthrough, the Durham, N.C., label has thrived without strict business models or profit-first strategies. Founded by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance as a way to release their cassettes and singles as Superchunk, Merge has found the rare balance between business and pleasure. What the Beatles couldn’t do with Apple, their would-be artist utopia, Merge has accomplished (albeit on a smaller scale) by never losing track of its ideals.

“The original vision was to have a cool record label like all the cool labels that put out records I started buying in high school…and to do it with local bands since those were the bands we knew,” McCaughan recalls. “My business acumen was zero, I’d say. Maybe Laura had more, or at least she was/is better at math. We didn’t really know about labels’ business approach, but we knew what we liked about the vibe of labels like Factory, K, Sub Pop, Dischord, Teen Beat, etc.-kind of a handmade feel and a unified look to the sleeves, kind of an open club.”

With an eclectic roster ranging from art-rockers Spoon and folk-pop troubadour M. Ward, to psych-pop outfit Caribou and McCaughan’s own Portastatic, that “club” has grown into a label that understands precisely how to take advantage of the digital era to forge a path that allows them to shrug off the traditional indie label limitations. “Digital is changing the picture so much,” Cardillo explains. “In 10 years, who knows what the distribution systems are going to be for physical retail. But digital retail completely allows the label to take on more responsibility…for ourselves…and to be much more responsible for how the music gets out to fans.”

As such, the distinctions between major labels and indie labels are becoming increasingly blurred, allowing labels like Merge to compete more effectively-on what has never been a level playing field. “What were formally the benefits of an artist going to a major label…those benefits have slowly disappeared,” Cardillo continues, “partly because independent labels are just as capable through the current distribution setup and through digital distribution to get the records in front as just as many people as major labels are. I think the days of only major labels being able to put out gold records are over. I think an independent label will have a gold record in the next ten years, and I hope that label is us. It has happened on some levels, with Beck in the mid-‘90s. It’s interesting, because Modest Mouse is on a major label, and Interpol’s new record is on a major label, but you’ll see bands at that same level that are still on independent labels are still doing just as well. The benefits a major label offers is that they basically have deeper pockets, and that’s about it. But in terms of marketing and getting records into fans’ hands, independent labels are doing just as well and are able to compete on that level.”

Even so, Cardillo isn’t quite ready to celebrate a new era of indie rock viability, knowing that fans are fickle and Merge is fighting for an increasingly small piece of the entertainment pie. “The bottom line for anything that we’re going to put out isn’t ‘How many we can sell?’ or ‘Who are we growing to draw in as new fans with this record?’ The bottom line has been ‘Does Mac like it, and does Laura like it?’ And that’s it,” Cardillo says flatly. “It’s fantastic that the profile of Merge and other independent labels is getting higher, but I don’t know that it is in any way not representative of the cyclical nature of culture,” he admits. “Will there be an indie rock band that hits the level of Nirvana? Probably. But there are a lot more entertainment options out there, and that, as much as anything, is why the music industry is declining. The level isn’t going to be five or six million anymore. It’s going to be one million or 800,000,” he says soberly before laughing. “But that’s a huge success.”

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