How an obscure Oregon label became a $10-million-a-year hard rock phenomenon.
This is an extended version of an article that first appeared in the May 10th issue of Billboard Magazine.
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 impressive 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). To date, Rise is responsible for nearly 5 percent of all hard rock records sold in 2014 -- more than twice the share of older and more established competitors like Hopeless Records and Epitaph. In each of the last two years, company revenues were an estimated $10 million.
And they’ve done it as a stealth rocket, 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, CA, where Rise founder Craig Ericson put out his first 7-inch as a senior in high school in 1991. Music moguldom didn’t come quickly. Ericson got a degree in geography, moved to Portland and worked for years as a cartographer for the federal Bureau of Land Management before succumbing to a persistent itch to resurrect his old passion project.
Between 1999 and 2005, he put out records by mostly local bands, including One Last Thing and Divit, that were well received but lost him 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,” in his own characterization, Ericson has fashioned himself as a shrewd music industry outsider. Rise maintains fine-grain control over its marketing budgets and isn’t afraid to break with conventional business practices when there are incremental gains to be made.
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 CDs 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 Memphis May Fire.“There have been times when I’ve suggested ‘Hey, why don’t you try doing a banner ad on this site’ and Craig will be like ‘Well we tried that and if we do this other site instead we’ll get better click-throughs for the same price.’”
Ericson confirms. “With some of our bigger bands we have said ‘How the heck can we spend more money?’’ he says. “But we won’t do something just to do it.”
Rise has also benefitted from embracing digital streaming platforms early on. In 2009, the label made the unusual move of making its entire catalog available to stream for free with ads on YouTube. The gamble paid off. With over 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% of annual revenue.
“I think illegal downloading actually helped us 10 years ago because fans would spread the word to people who would later support the bands,” says Ericson. “We’ve been aggressive about getting our music out there where it can be heard hassle-free.”
In a throwback to an earlier generation when hard rock and metal labels like Epitaph and Victory Records developed cult followings, Ericson says many of the label’s customers now buy albums by every artist on its roster.
“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.”