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Merge celebrates 20th year with July festival

Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance are both members of Superchunk, a band that has been together for more than 20 years, released eight albums and played Lollapalooza.

Still, neither of them should quit their day jobs.

In 1989, Superchunk, based out of Chapel Hill, began to attract interest from major labels like Atlantic Records. But instead of signing with an already established label, McCaughan and Ballance started their own: Merge Records.

Twenty years later, the label-now comprised of over 60 bands-has become a leading influence in indie music. While still representing many North Carolina-based groups, Merge has attracted musicians from across the world, including at one time or another the likes of Camera Obscura, Spoon and the Arcade Fire.

Every five years, the label has organized a festival that attempts to bring together as many of their acts as possible. This month brings XX Merge, a five-night extravaganza created to honor the label's 20th anniversary. Held from July 22-26, XX Merge will consist of four nights at Carrboro's Cat's Cradle and a final show, headlined by folk duo She & Him-She being major actress Zooey Deschanel, and Him, Merge rocker M. Ward-at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Memorial Hall.

Concertgoers can expect an air of unpredictability from the Cradle shows.

The label has released a list of the 28 musicians set to perform, featuring a balance of more recent and higher profile Merge artists like M. Ward and the Magnetic Fields alongside longstanding label members like Polvo and Matt Suggs. However, Merge has decided to not give a nightly lineup for any Cradle performance.

John Cook, author of the forthcoming Our Noise, which chronicles the history of Merge Records, believes that the secrecy hints at unexpected appearances and unconventional collaborations.

"I'm very curious to see what surprises they have lined up. I have to imagine that they have some oldies but goodies in store," Cook said.

One such surprise may come from the anticipated Superchunk performance. Due to McCaughan and Ballance's obligations at Merge Records, Superchunk shows have become increasingly rare.

Yet McCaughan wrote in an email that the band is currently recording new tracks, with plans of releasing a single in July. In fact, a new Superchunk release in April-EP Leaves in the Gutter, their first release of new material in 8 years-is just one of a number of fresh Merge releases taking place within months of the festival.

For the performers, XX Merge is more of a celebration than a showcase for the label. Ivan Howard, of Raleigh's the Rosebuds, views the festival as an opportunity to reconnect with labelmates who he rarely has a chance to hear in person.

"It's a family reunion situation," Howard said. "A lot of the bands travel all the time, and we never get to see them."

Scheduling so many acts could easily have been a logistical nightmare for Merge employees, but McCaughan was surprised at the willingness of his roster to perform at XX Merge.

"Persuading the bands is always easier than I think it will be- I feel like they're doing us a favor, but they (hopefully) see it as something fun to do," McCaughan wrote.

It's clear that Merge owes much of their success to an ability to retain personal relationships with all of their artists, despite continued growth. Convincing 30 acts to come and play takes more than just fiscal incentives.

"The actual label hasn't changed at all. They may have hired a few more people, but they always treat us exactly the same," Howard said. "The label is exactly the same."

Cook, who has followed Merge artists since he first attended a Superchunk show in the early '90s, agreed.

"Merge purposely stayed small," Cook said. "They never overreached.. They never wanted to simply find the next record that would make them money."

Merge Records is an example of what happens when diligent and business-savvy musicians are allowed to run their own label. And XX Merge will allow fans to enjoy the label's dedication to indie music.

"It's a chance to see a bunch of great bands all at once, and unlike most festivals now, you're not standing in a field somewhere," McCaughan wrote. "You're up close and seeing these bands in a great rock club."

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