From Rise to Riches: How An Obscure Oregon Label Became a $10-Million-a-Year Hard-Rock Phenomenon

Rise Records is a tiny operation - just six employees at a modest office in Beaverton, Ore. But in the metal music world, the independent label is making a surprisingly loud noise. Three of its albums have cracked the top 10 of the Billboard 200 so far this year, including "Unconditional" by Dallas metalcore outfit Memphis May Fire, released in March (No. 4). Rise is responsible for nearly 5 percent of all hard-rock records sold in 2014 - more than twice the market share of older and more established competitors like Hopeless Records and Epitaph. In each of the last two years, the company's revenue was estimated at $10 million.

And the label has done it by building a young, fiercely loyal audience while keeping a low profile. "Everything that they're doing is fairly under the radar, as far as the mainstream goes," says Vaughn Lewis, founder of Strong Management and manager of bands like Killswitch Engage and Disfiguring the Goddess. "They've kind of come out of nowhere and surprised a lot of people."

Nowhere, in this case, is Grass Valley, Calif., where Rise founder Craig Ericson put out his first 7-inch as a high school senior in 1991. Music moguldom didn't come quickly. Ericson got a degree in geography, moved to Portland and worked for years as a government cartographer before succumbing to a persistent itch to resurrect his old passion project.

Between 1999 and 2005, he released records mostly by local bands that were well received but lost money. That changed in 2006, when the screamo outfit Drop Dead, Gorgeous sold 30,000 copies of its debut album, "In Vogue," and was upstreamed to Suretone/Interscope. Ericson quit his day job soon after.

As a label head, or "president dude," as he calls himself, Ericson isn't afraid to break with conventional business practices. When he noticed the digital download cards that the label sent out with its vinyl orders were costing a penny more to produce than CDs, Ericson nixed the cards and started adding discs to the orders instead, usually charging just $15 for the bundle.

"They know their market better than anyone in the world, and they don't waste time or money," says Dave Shapiro of The Agency Group, who represents Rise's biggest bands, including Of Mice and Men, Sleeping With Sirens and Hot Water Music.

In 2009, the label made its entire catalog available to stream for free with ads on YouTube. The gamble paid off. With more than 1 million subscribers, Rise's YouTube channel is now one of the most followed among record companies. Streaming income at the label now accounts for 25 percent of annual revenue.

"We've been aggressive about getting our music out there where it can be heard hassle-free," says Ericson, adding that many of Rise's customers now buy albums by every artist on its roster, just as forerunners like Epitaph and Victory used to do.

"It's almost like a movement," says Lewis. "They have their finger on the pulse to the point where people are looking at them beyond just the individual albums they put out. You don't see that too much anymore."