Merge Records turns 30

by Catherine Currin | photography by Eamon Queeney

In 1989, Laura Ballance & Mac McCaughan met while working at Peppers Pizza in Chapel Hill. They didn’t realize the friendship would turn into starting a band: The two formed Superchunk that same year, an indie rock group known for putting Chapel Hill music on the national map, with Ballance on the bass and McCaughan on vocals and guitar. The quartet, with Jim Wilbur and Jon Wurster, released its 11th album, What a Time to Be Alive, in February 2018.

As the band got off the ground, they also created a record label, Merge Records. Originally, it was a way to record their own music as well as make tapes for their friends’ bands. “When we started out, bands would get paid by the copies they could sell at their show,” says McCaughan, so having cassettes on hand was key. Merge’s first office was in Ballance’s home in Chapel Hill, and over the years Merge grew to expand into its current downtown Durham office space in 2001.

Thirty years later, both the band and the label continue to thrive. Merge Records now represents over 100 artists from all sorts of genres and regions. While they always support local talent, Merge also represents groups from Canada, Scotland and across the United States, including Grammy-winning Arcade Fire from Montreal, Durham’s Hiss Golden Messenger and Raleigh’s The Love Language.

To celebrate how far they’ve come, McCaughan and Ballance hosted a four-day music festival across Durham and Carrboro venues this past July. The event featured over 30 of the label’s artists, including the Mountain Goats, Waxahatchee, Teenage Fanclub and, of course, Superchunk. Ballance says they’re also launching a subscription service to commemorate the anniversary, where music lovers will receive a year of special releases. The duo says that the festival—which they host every five years—is one of the highlights of being a record label. “It’s great to see so many bands that we work with, some we might otherwise see only once a year,” says McCaughan. “It’s so rare to have them all in one place, getting together in North Carolina.”

When asked why the two didn’t start the business in a music city like Nashville or Los Angeles, McCaughan and Ballance don’t hesitate. “As far as I’m concerned, you can start a record label anywhere,” says Ballance. “Living here, where there’s a lower cost of living and slower lifestyle, helped us to develop Merge in the way that we wanted to.” McCaughan says that there’s more than meets the eye in terms of the local music community. “This area is a great place to have a record label—there are so many great local bands, venues and radio stations. There’s just a lot of support for local music and art in general here. I feel lucky that this is where Merge is.”