Divide and conquer: how Ed Sheeran took over the world

The British singer-songwriter is the biggest male musician on the planet with streaming numbers to make your eyes water. As he returns with new album ‘=’, Annabel Nugent charts his rise to the top and asks, does being calculated really undermine his creativity?

Friday 29 October 2021 06:37
<p>Sheeran’s newest album is the ninth in a 15-record masterplan </p>

Sheeran’s newest album is the ninth in a 15-record masterplan

On Thursday 2 September 2010, two Eds met and set the wheels in motion for one of the biggest pop careers of this generation. Bruno Mars had been playing his first ever London gig at the Notting Hill Arts Club in west London – but he wasn’t the one that who made history that night. In the crowd that evening were Ed Howard, soon-to-be co-president of Atlantic Records, and a 19-year-old Ed Sheeran, soon-to-be megastar. The pair got chatting about music over pints. Howard eventually invited Sheeran to crash at his place that night. Within a year, Sheeran had signed with Atlantic.

A little over a decade later, Sheeran is one of the biggest male musicians in the world. Today, he releases his fifth album = (pronounced “equals”). Looking at his track record is proof enough that = will be in heavier-than-heavy rotation on the radio for the next month. But this is something that by now the British public have got used to. His omnipotence is startling: across four EPs and four studio albums, the singer-songwriter has sold more than 150 million records worldwide and has spent 52 weeks at the top of the charts across his 10 No 1 singles.

In the streaming arena, he dominates: On Spotify, he has more followers than any other artist. His mop of red hair and amicable mien is the thumbnail of the streaming platform’s Billions playlist, a catalogue compiling every song with over a billion streams – Sheeran accounts for seven of the tracks on the list. It’s not uncommon, either, to see more than one of his tracks in the Top 10 singles charts at the same time, as he continually competes against himself. The only thing that prevented his 2017 song “Castle on the Hill” making it to No 1 in the UK was his other song, “Shape of You” (which, as it happens, is rapidly approaching the three billion milestone on Spotify). Similarly, Sheeran’s new single, last month’s “Shivers”, proved to be the only thing capable of dethroning “Bad Habits”, his previous single that had topped the UK charts for 11 consecutive weeks.

The 30-year-old Suffolk folkie is stable ground in pop territory increasingly shaken by TikTok trends and viral hits. Partly, that’s because the Sheeran formula – which seems unshakeable – is deceptively simple. After breaking through in 2010 with “The A Team”, his plaintive voice, satisfying acoustic guitar melodies and stripped-back production found a home with a YouTube generation partial to making and sharing covers. Eleven years later, his music – which easily rides the wave of styles from R&B to Afrobeats, redrawn in the shape of Sheeran – remains chart-pop catnip. In his lyrics, he routinely positions himself as a fish out of water. His origin story comprises several vignettes – including “Ed meets Ed at a Bruno Mars gig”, “Ed leaves school at 16” and “Ed parties with Jamie Foxx in LA after performing at an open mic R&B night with a ukulele” – that are compelling touchstones in his narrative of regular guy done good. The result is the image of someone who has happened upon fame by chance rather than by intention – but, as he’s since made clear, it’s anything but the case.

Ambition is not a dirty word to Sheeran. The singer is open about the fact he watches the charts like a hawk. He told GQ in 2017 that the first thing he does in the morning is check his sales figures. He is also candid about the fact he has numerical goals for every album he releases. He represents a new kind of pop star, one that speaks about KPIs and quarterly targets like a high-powered suit working in finance, which has turned out to be one of the most compelling things about him. To some, surely this is at odds with the whimsical artiste who sings about love and has a Heinz logo tattooed on his body. But can he not be both?

Sheeran has always been this way: business-oriented, competitive, and not afraid to seriously graft. That fateful meeting with Ed Howard in 2010 was fortuitous, sure, but it was also the upshot of the many years the singer-songwriter had spent getting himself seen: playing every gig, open mic night and busking spot possible. “I had been fascinated with him for six or seven months before,” Howard said in an interview. He had heard a rapper cover “Lego House” and seen Sheeran’s viral SB.TV performance of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You”. The two things combined suggested an artist who could comfortably straddle the worlds of conventionally white and Black music, who has universal appeal. It was enough to elicit curiosity about the baby-faced, flannel-wearing teenager. Meeting Sheeran in person sealed the deal. “He was very bullish,” recalls Howard, adding that he was also “super-charismatic and super-intelligent”. He clarifies that Sheeran was bullish “not in an uncomfortable way”, only that “there was no beating around the bush”.

With Bruno Mars playing in the background, Sheeran laid down his six-month plan then and there. “It was very meticulous,” says Howard. “He had theories about how his social media would link to the live shows and how that would link to the merch that he would sell people at his shows and how that in turn would drive the iTunes, etcetera. So, there was this cottage industry aspect to it. It was all very smart.”

Within just a year, the six-month proposal Sheeran put forward to Howard that night in west London evolved into a master plan, one which he described in eerily prescient detail to The Guardian in 2012. In the interview, Sheeran even accounted for the 18-month hiatus he’s just come off, predicting that he would “calm it down a bit” after releasing “a collaboration [album] with all the acts that I grew up listening to”. More recently, Sheeran revealed he was more than halfway through a 15-record grand plan. Today’s release of = takes us to number nine (he includes five of his EPs in the tally). According to Sheeran, there’ll be one more in his maths-based series, followed by five further albums before he calls it quits for good.

Scream idol: Sheeran on the mic in 2015

From the get-go, Sheeran was a singular artist. This was a teenager with fully formed ambition, rare focus and the business sense to string it together. Not to mention the musical talent and enviable confidence. In 2011, still without a label or press backing, Sheeran put out his EP No 5 Collaborations. Already anticipating the advent of Sheerios (the nickname he uses for his diehard supporters), Sheeran divined that the album would be a “low-key release” his future fans would discover as part of his back catalogue. In contrast to the “well, I just got lucky” bashfulness of some celebrities, Sheeran is refreshingly unshy about the fact his astronomical success came as no surprise. “Because the music I write is like love songs with big hooks, I kind of knew it would end up where it’s ended up if it got the right radio play,” he told The Guardian.

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He might not have predicted, however, how divisive his music can be. The singer is a hate/love figure among critics, but there is no doubt he is in tune with the masses. It’s telling that when discussing the singer’s enduring appeal, it all comes back to his work ethic. On Sheeran’s popularity, Chris Price, head of music at BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra, offers: “Ed has a reputation for being the hardest-working man in pop. His song writing seems so effortless, but his work rate is insane, and his ambition is sky-high, still. It would be so easy to rest on his laurels after so much success, but Ed never does – he’s super hungry.”

Likewise, Maisie Peters, the most recent signee to Sheeran’s recently launched Gingerbread Man Records label, spoke of his “dedication to what he does”, adding that despite his “single-mindedness” her new mentor is still “the most considerate of others, always stopping to make sure every single person in the room feels welcome”. Even Sheeran-haters must admit his work ethic is unmatched. The only thing more impressive than the fact that his Divide tour made more than £562m between March 2017 and April 2019 (making it the highest-grossing concert tour of all time), is the fact that he played 255 shows in that period. Other artists perform around half that.

Even his earlier interviews reveal the mercenary intuition of a wannabe star, which have only grown sharper with age, experience, and success. This drive determines, to a controversial extent, what he chooses to do in the recording studio. It’s not an admission that needs to be coaxed out of him. In 2017, Chris Evans asked Sheeran whether “Castle on the Hill” and “Shape of You” – the singer’s two stylistically different comeback songs that year, one an emotional belter, the other a singalong to Marimba-fuelled percussion – had been written with the double-pronged strategy of targeting Radio 1 with the former and Radio 2 with the latter. He first said he wrote them “for myself”, before readily admitting that Evans’ “theory is correct”.

Sheeran performs with Beyoncé in 2015

Sheeran’s ability for engineering catchiness has earned him millions of fans (guilty pleasure ones count too) but critics remain less partial to the singer. Reviews of his music regularly range between lukewarm and reproving of his algorithmic craft. The singer is often depicted as some laboratory-made robot concocting surefire hits totally devoid of creativity. He’s aware of the reputation, telling GQ earlier this year that he is “very self-conscious about the way the world views me”.

And so, it felt borderline defiant when Sheeran released his last album, No 6 Collaborations, in 2019. The record comprises joint efforts between Sheeran and a list of artists that reads like a who’s who of pop music that year. Cardi B, Camila Cabello, Travis Scott, Stormzy and Justin Bieber all feature. Reviews were mixed and even the favourable ones described the record in vaguely double-edged compliments like “savvy”. The Independent called it “relentlessly safe”. If there was any doubt though, No 6 Collaborations was a commercial success: the album debuted at No 1 in the UK and US charts and became the fastest-selling record of the year.

Ed Sheeran makes Game of Thrones cameo

Perhaps some of the derision directed toward Sheeran comes from the perceived disconnect between this CFO-like mentality and the laid-back guy who wears joggers on the red carpet. If your typical pop star represents a manifestation of what we’ve been taught to desire, Sheeran gives us the antithesis: a haphazard and seemingly unpruned portrait of a sometimes star. He takes long breaks from social media. He is married to Cherry Seaborn, a girl he went to school with, and remains a diehard fan of Ipswich Town FC. He’s the type of guy who sets up an Instagram account for his cats; a ginger tabby named Dorito, and Callipo, a sweet Scottish Fold identical to the one owned by his pal Taylor Swift.

“There’s a playfulness to him; a charisma and a humour that came through in everything that he was doing back then and continues to come through today,” says Howard. “He has a sense of self-deprecation, a sense of fun.” He’s your average Joe. He’s just Ed!

Still, isn’t it possible that those two sides of Sheeran – business megamind and creative soul – can co-exist in harmony? As Howard points out, being obsessed with success is not always the same as being obsessed with money. “For Ed, it’s about understanding the world in very granular detail,” he says. “It’s not the money or even the business that fascinates him, it’s about the mechanics of the music world.”

Howard stipulates that for Sheeran it isn’t about counting his cash; it’s about understanding trends, understanding social media, understanding why fans love certain artists more than others, why certain artists stream well but don’t sell gig tickets and why other artists have huge social media followings but don’t stream as much. Certainly, that’s an image easier to reconcile with Sheeran’s shaggy-haired, pub-loving persona than that of a calculated hitmaker. He’s just a regular guy who loves to make music that people love. For some artists, the way of balancing personal expression and commercial imperatives has been the ol’ “one for them, one for me” tactic. But for Sheeran, these two pursuits seem to be bound up in one another – is that such a bad thing?

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