Earache was founded in 1985 by Digby Pearson who prior to launching the label proper had compiled 'Anglican Scrape Attic', a proto-compilation of early hardcore punk and crossover thrash acts which included Hirax, Lipcream and Concrete Sox. Accordingly, the first official Earache release on vinyl in 1987 with catalogue number MOSH 1, was The Accüsed's The Return of Martha Splatterhead. This was followed by a split LP by the crust/crossover band Concrete Sox and the proto-grind band Heresy. The label's first major release of note was MOSH 3, Napalm Death's Scum. Famously, John Peel was a champion of the band and supported them on BBC Radio 1. The record went on to reach number 7 in the UK indie chart.:143–146 Following this, Earache released music by many bands from the emerging grindcore and death metal scenes, such as Morbid Angel, Carcass, Entombed, Bolt Thrower and Terrorizer.
Although intrinsically linked with death metal, the label's catalogue is varied and also includes Welsh ragga-metal act Dub War, Birmingham's industrial metal pioneers Godflesh, Nottingham's Pitchshifter, hardcore techno outfit Ultraviolence, Mick Harris's industrial/experimental group Scorn, John Zorn-led experimental group Naked City and doom and sludge metal bands Sleep and Acid Bath.
In the early 1990s Columbia Records, seeking to break into metal, inked a deal with Earache. Columbia would license rights and market and distribute them in The Americas, with rights reverting to Earache upon completion of the deal term. It is widely accepted that Columbia failed to deliver the expected sales that they themselves had projected and thus they sought to prematurely terminate the agreement.:219–236 Barney Greenway of Napalm Death objected to the deal with Columbia (a subsidiary of Sony Music) on the basis that it was "selling out", although Napalm Death have since released music also distributed by Columbia parent Sony Music Entertainment. The rights to all Columbia-licensed titles have since reverted to Earache, who thereafter have been wholly independent, working with distributors as opposed to licensees.
The label has a number of subsidiary labels, including Wicked World Records, Elitist Records, Sub Bass Records and the short-lived Necrosis Records.