The flash of bright blue on HMV’s Oxford Street storefront stands out from the grey drizzle of a dull Friday morning. But this isn’t just any Friday, this is Ed Sheeran release day, and the singer’s ÷ album is out now, after months of anticipation.
Not that you’d really know it inside the shop. The staff are wearing specially made t-shirts, music manager John Hirst is buzzing around busily in front of the special Sheeran rack in just inside the door and the record is blaring from the speakers, but there’s hardly a stampede. Even the crowd when Sheeran himself turns up with manager Stuart Camp and gets behind the till is modest. But that’s to come, it’s still only 8am.
Hirst forecasts an increase in footfall “in about an hour”, and in the meantime the first customers trickle in. Roxanna, visiting London from Cyprus, is one of the first to the tills with her deluxe edition. “I dance around the room to the new singles, much to the embarrassment of my children,” she tells Music Week. “But I don’t think it was a good idea to release them on the same day, I liked Shape Of You so I kept listening to that one.”
Daniel Kelly, 28, here buying a deluxe CD edition (priced at £12.99, compared to the regular CD at £9.99 and the LP at £22.99), disagrees. “It was an original idea and the singles have been good,” he says. “I’m buying a copy for my wife as a surprise, she’s still asleep. I wasn’t expecting a queue.”
Next in line is 63-year-old John Manning, buying two deluxe CD editions. “One’s for home and one’s for the car,” he explains. “I’ve come out of my way specially for this, I’ll have breakfast round the corner. He’s one of those you can listen to and listen to - you don’t think, Oh, not him again. But I don’t understand the gap between the singles and the album, you want it and you can’t get it. Sometimes people lose interest if they’ve called in [to shops] a few times to get it.”
After disappearing for a while Hirst returns, and the first subject up for discussion is that week one sales figure. “Everyone will be a bit disappointed if it doesn’t do 400,000 this week,” he says. “Half of that will probably be on pre-order and sales today and tomorrow.”
Hirst predicts a busier Friday than usual, citing pay day and Nintendo’s new Switch release as well as ÷ finally being available. He adds that he’s expecting most customers this weekend to be “buying the same thing” and forecasts “multiple purchasing, people buying for their kids and a spread across all demographics”.
For Hirst, that generational spread is, “the sign of a crossover record. Adele has had that from the second album onwards and we saw it with Rag’N’Bone Man too.”
He puts the lack of younger fans in store this morning down to location, adding that other regional stores may well be rammed with children on the way to school. Even so, the lack of a queue outside doesn’t surprise him. “There weren’t queues for Adele. These days people understand that places don’t sell out of things and you don’t need to be there at 8am to secure your copy,” he explains.
Before he’s off again to prepare for Sheeran’s arrival, Hirst assures us that there’s no chance of running out of stock, and sheds some light on prospects for the LPs on the racks. “We absolutely couldn’t run out. The most likely scenario is the LP having a higher proportion of sales today than we expected, but we’ve got a contingency for that and we can get stock by 6am tomorrow. We’re looking at 10% of ÷ sales on LP.”
“The appetite is clearly huge,” he continues. “We’ll see an awful lot of people around lunchtime, we normally reckon we’ve done about 25% of sales by midday and then we’ll do half of the day’s sales across lunchtime, that might be even more today.”
With the album now on its third play (it’ll be on loop all day) Atlantic marketing manager Callum Caulfield is milling around near the entrance. “It’s an exciting day, Ed’s worked on this for three years and we started last September,” he says. “It’s a massive week, another British artist hopefully dominating the charts after Rag’N’Bone Man and Stormzy. It feels like British music is on the way back and it’s a proud week to be part of it.”
Naturally, Caulfield is looking forward, citing the “exciting challenge” of maximising the impact of the singles that are still to come. “With streaming being such an influence in the lifespan of singles and a certain amount of control being taken away from us, the thing is to make each single exciting, to give each one a life and keep the longevity going,” he says. “Fortunately, this album is ram packed with singles so we’ll just be making commemorative moments over the next 18 months to give each one almost an album campaign of its own.”
As he leaves to drain his coffee, the shop begins to fill, and suddenly, Ed Sheeran arrives to very little fanfare. He pulls on one of the bright blue staff t-shirts, grabs a record and heads to the till. “23 quid for the vinyl? Fucking hell!” he says turning past the cameraphones to flash a glance at manager Camp.
“Look, he’s going behind the till! He can’t add up, that’s dangerous,” Camp says a minute later. There’s barely time to blink before Sheeran is whisked back out into the rain for a day of promo, which Camp says will end with “a long beer”.
The real celebrations however, will come in a week’s time, when the figures are in. “This is an exciting day, but mine and Ed’s predictions are in sealed envelopes until then,” Camp says, before he and the 26-year-old who recently admitted clocking Justin Bieber in the chops with a golf club disappear into the rain.