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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A: Merge Records has had worldwide success, but loves its home in N.C.

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Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, co-owners of MERGE Records in Durham, North Carolina, stand in their office on July 18, 2013.

The Daily Tar Heel's Margaret Hungate spoke with Merge Record's label manager, Christina Rentz, on the label’s history and influence on the music scene in the Triangle and beyond, as Merge approaches its 35th anniversary.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The Daily Tar Heel: Who was Merge Records founded by, and why?

Christina Rentz: Merge Records was founded in 1989 by Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance. They are the lead singer and bass player of the band Superchunk.

The label came out of the desire to preserve what was happening in the local music scene in Chapel Hill — bands would form and then immediately break up, and there was no record of them ever existing. They started the label to release seven-inch records from local bands they were into, and it has grown ever since then.

Superchunk was on Matador Records at the time that Merge was founded, and eventually Merge started putting out Superchunk records, so they moved their records over to Merge as well. We started doing more full-lengths, and now we work with artists all over the world, we release albums everywhere in the world, and it has grown a lot.

The DTH: What has Merge Records meant to the Triangle music scene?

CR: I think having a successful record label in the area has made it a desirable place for musicians to move. It's more expensive than it used to be, but it is still less expensive than, say, Brooklyn or Austin. There is a very welcoming music community, and Merge sort of helped put the Triangle on the map.

But certainly, having three large universities next to each other is helpful — with great college radio stations and record stores and just a supportive arts community. Having us be a part of that has helped solidify the Triangle as a place where artists and musicians can come and find like-minded people who will help them create things.

Just in the last 10 years, more and more musicians have moved here even after we started working with them, and I think that has been really cool to see.

The DTH: Because Merge currently has less than 20 employees, what has been your role working with a smaller team in such a large network like the music industry?

CR: It is important for us to stay small so that our artists can make money, and that's always our goal. We try to do really equitable deals; we don’t own anyone’s music, we just license it for terms, but we try to be really artist-friendly because we're an artist-run label.

When I started at Merge, I was right out of college and did college radio promotions. Then I helped with regional press, which is tour press in different markets as bands were playing through, in addition to radio promotions. Then I did publicity for a long time, and now I’m the label manager, which is sort of operations, we don’t really have traditional manager roles. I oversee all of that, from getting music from the artists to turning it into an album.

We have a fantastic staff, some who have been here for 20 years and others who have been here for two years, but it’s always fun to get fresh energy and also have really experienced, giant brains who see a lot of the changing trends.

The DTH: Were you at Merge when they started to go more worldwide with their artists?

CR: In 2001, we released a Superchunk album called “Here’s to Shutting Up,” and then Superchunk didn’t release another record for nine years. So, Merge changed at that point from being a label whose flagship band was very active and funded a lot of what we did, to focusing more on Merge and building Merge. 

That’s when we really started to grow — we worked with Spoon, continued to work with The Magnetic Fields, we started working with Arcade Fire in 2004. The focus changed from "we release Superchunk and other bands" to "Merge Records is a place for indie artists that are getting a ton of attention," and it allowed us to grow in a pretty organic way.

The DTH: What does the milestone of the 35th anniversary indicate for the label?

CR: We're still here, which is very exciting. Every five years we throw ourselves a huge party at Cat’s Cradle, and we celebrate the way that our roster changes and evolves based on the kind of music that we actually listened to, and we try to reflect the world around us a little bit more.

If you look at the history of Merge, it was a lot of guys with guitars, and we love guys with guitars and that will always be a huge part of our roster, but we have more women and people of color which I think is really important. 

Having our roster reflect more about what we’re listening to as times change and the world opens up and we do have more access to different kinds of music has been important to McCaughan and Ballance, and very cool for all of us on staff for sure.

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So every five years, we're like, "Wow, look how different, look how much has happened in five years."

@dthlifestyle | lifestyle@dailytarheel.com