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 The label later made its name signing acts from the emerging grindcore and death metal scenes such as Morbid Angel, Carcass, Entombed and Terrorizer.:148–186
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". The rights to all licensed titles has since reverted to Earache meanwhile Napalm Death have themselves released five albums for Century Media, another Sony Music subsidiary.
During the 90s Earache signed experimental artists such as Ultraviolence who produced heavy techno music and also pioneering dance artists such as Lenny D.
Since the Columbia deal, Earache has remained wholly independent, working with distributors as opposed to licensees.
In 2010 Earache signed Singaporean grindcore band Wormrot, releasing the band's debut album and two further albums.
Although intrinsically linked with death metal, the labels catalogue is varied and also includes Welsh ragga-metal act Dub War (later known as Skindred), Birmingham's industrial metal pioneers Godflesh, Nottingham's Pitchshifter, hardcore techno outfit Ultraviolence, Mick Harris' industrial/experimental Scorn and releases by Deicide. Earache signed musically adventurous groups such as Ewigkeit, as well as blues rock bands such as Rival Sons, Blackberry Smoke and The Temperance Movement.
The label has number of subsidiary labels, including Wicked World Records, Elitist Records, Sub Bass Records and the short-lived Necrosis Records.