Look Before You Leap: What Record Companies (and Book Publishers?) Can Learn from Merge Records

By • Jul 6th, 2009 • Category: 26th Story, Big Ideas, Business, Entertainment, Music

Merge_300NPR’s piece about the 20th anniversary of indie record company Merge is fascinating and possibly instructive. While large record companies (and book publishers) have overextended themselves and now need to scale back, Merge has succeeded by choosing new artists carefully and marketing them frugally.  And even when they have hits (Spoon, Arcade Fire) they continue to warn their artists to keep expectations in line with reality. The result is credibility with critics, music fans and artists alike. 

 So the question is: can Book Publishers follow suit?  In a time where creative ideas are welcome, perhaps we need only look at Merge Records to realize that trust, cautious decision making and staying grounded may lead us in the right direction.

Click here  to read the article or here to listen to the intriguing piece.

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  • Nathan

    While I haven’t read this article yet, I think there is a lot for publishing people to learn from the independent music industry. One thing I really like is the fact that there is no stigma with putting out your own work on your own label in the indie music industry. Superchunk had Merge, Fugazi had Dischord, Bright Eyes had Saddle Creek, etc. After realizing mainstream publishers weren’t looking for the type of work I’ve been doing, I decided to start my own indie publishing “label” here in Houston that will hopefully document the writing “scene” in Houston the way Saddle Creek did for music in Omaha and Dischord did for D.C. With the ease of producing digital versions of works, there’s hardly any risk involved anymore. If it takes off, you run with it. The majority of your money can be spent on marketing. It’s still in the planning stages, but we’ll see what happens.

    A big difference between music and publishing is that music fans know the reputations of record labels, while many readers have no idea who publishes their books. Music fans know what to expect when they hear a band’s on Merge or XL or 4AD. There’s brand recognition and trust that’s not present in publishing. That trust helps a lot of smaller bands on those labels find audiences, whereas smaller authors aren’t going to benefit in the same way. I would say the exception is McSweeney’s.

    Another key is these labels knew their market and focused on it, then allowed it to grow via word-of-mouth and over the Internet. The music sold well for indie releases, and eventually some of it crossed over into the mainstream, receiving large distribution even while staying on the indie labels. They don’t shoot for the stars right out of the gate. They operate within their means and are open to new methods of promotion. Good for them. I think major publishers are too far in over their heads to be able to scale back to that. Good for your parent company to at least attempt a new way of operating with HarperStudio. I think it’s on the right track, and I’m definitely taking notes for my own endeavors, especially the 50/50 splits with little or no advances. It fits the indie model perfectly.

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