It came down to the wire, but Merge Records has topped the charts for the first time ever. The Durham-based label will be No. 1 on the Billboard 200's Aug. 21 album-sales chart with "The Suburbs," the highly acclaimed new album by Montreal rock band Arcade Fire.
"The Suburbs" sold 156,000 copies its first week out, Merge's biggest-ever one-week sales total. The album just beat out Detroit rapper Eminem, whose "Recovery" registered sales of 152,000 to come in at No. 2.
"We definitely had all hands on deck with everybody working to get the word out the past week," Merge co-founder Mac McCaughan said. "The band had an amazing week, too, selling out two nights at Madison Square Garden. And of course, the biggest thing of all is that it's a great record."
The top of the charts is a long way from Merge's humble origins 21 years ago, when its "office" was co-founder Laura Ballance's bedroom in Chapel Hill. Merge was putting out cassette tapes and vinyl singles rather than compact discs and digital downloads back then, with sales in the hundreds rather than hundreds of thousands.
Two decades of steady growth later, Merge is a chart fixture. The label has reached Billboard's top-10 before with Arcade Fire, Texas rock band Spoon and the pop duo She & Him. Getting to No. 1 was the last remaining milestone, although not everyone is impressed.
"For me, it's sort of akin to sports -- this need to be the winner, No. 1," said Ballance. "Sure, I think it's great. But I also feel a certain distance from it. We always do everything we can to sell records and maybe we're getting better at it. Or maybe it's a sign that the record industry as a whole is not doing well."
Merge is one of the industry's few bright spots nowadays. Thanks to the digital revolution, the record business has been mired in a decade-long slump; sales are less than half of what they were at the turn of the century. Merge, however, is thriving.
Under McCaughan and Ballance's leadership, Merge has prospered by not trying to grow too much or too fast. The label's focus remains alternative rock, but with room for spaced-out country (Lambchop), atmospheric folk-rock (M. Ward) and strange experimentation (Music Tapes).
The label has 14 employees and will release 16 new full-length albums in 2010 -- a fraction of what the Interscopes and Sonys of the world put out. But Merge stays focused on working a few releases at a time, which can pay big dividends. Arcade Fire is the label's top seller, with three albums that have sold more than 1 million total copies.
"Merge is one of the great success stories of the modern era," said Steve Knopper, who covers the music industry for Rolling Stone magazine. "They're just much better at talent discovery and artist development than most labels. By now, they're one of the great independent labels, going all the way back to Motown, Island, Sun, Chess. And it's extraordinary that they're doing it at a time when records just don't sell like they used to."