As Ed Sheeran drops new album No.6 Collaborations Project (July 12), here's a chance to revisit the Music Week cover feature on the phenomenal ÷ campaign - read on for key insights from Sheeran, manager Stuart Camp, Atlantic president Ben Cook and more...
Say it loud and proud: it’s been a great year for the music business. But however sensational 2017 was for you and yours, you can bet it wasn’t as downright amazing as the annus mirabilis Ed Sheeran has just enjoyed.
The bare facts of his achievements are remarkable enough. The biggest/fastest-selling UK album of the year. Sixteen weeks and counting at No.1 in the Singles Chart and 18 (and also counting) at No.1 on the albums chart.
The first (and last) star to hold nine of the Top 10 UK singles at the same time. Streaming records shattered. Glastonbury conquered. Millions of tickets sold in minutes.
But, really, that tells barely half the tale of Ed Sheeran’s 2017. The ground-breaking, agenda-setting double single drop of Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill changed the game for the biz.
The colossal first-week performance of the ÷ album broke streaming into the pop mainstream, all but killed off windowing as a sales strategy and gave the music industry revival irreversible momentum.
And it wasn’t just in his home country either: ÷ conquered the few countries that hadn’t previously been Sheeranated (most notably Japan and France) and turned him into a superstar in the ones that had.
He also racked up appearances on the two other biggest global releases of 2017, Taylor Swift’s Reputation and Eminem’s Revival, and wrote songs for the likes of Rita Ora, James Blunt and Major Lazer.
Even when he managed to break both his arms he somehow came up trumps: if the fractures to his right wrist and left elbow had been reversed, he’d have been out of action for six months.
As it was, he was back on the road in less than four weeks.
So if anyone deserves to have his feet up in front of a roaring fire and some Christmas telly with a cigar both literally and metaphorically out, it’s Ed Sheeran.
But that is not the Sheeran way. As the end of the year looms and he bids for a double single/album Christmas No.1 with Perfect and ÷, his schedule resembles that of a wannabe in search of his first hit rather than a global superstar who’s made everyone else this year look like they’re not even trying.
He squeezes Music Week in between festive engagements that include Capital’s Jingle Bell Ball, Radio 1’s Live Lounge, Jools Holland’s Hootenanny and the Strictly Come Dancing final, yet his self-deprecation and modesty remain intact.
When told he’s Music Week’s Artist Of The Year, he sheepishly describes it as “Very humbling and super exciting, thank you”.
His highlights of the year were Glastonbury, the release week for Shape/Castle (“A bit nuts”) and “managing to get Beyoncé to sing on Perfect”.
He plays down his role in the mould-breaking double single drop (“I think it was originally Ben Cook or my manager Stuart [Camp] because we were torn about which one to go with”) although, when pressed, he adds: “The songs are pretty different in sound and subject, so we felt it was a good way to give the fans a taste of what was coming from the album.
I also knew the dual release hadn’t really been done before, so it felt like an exciting move…”
But, when asked whether he’d previously contemplated ending 2017 as the biggest star on the planet, he seems endearingly nonplussed.
“I don’t know about that, but it’s been a great year,” he says. “I don’t think me or anyone in my team expected it to go this well. We all had a guess on what the album might do sales-wise before release and it surpassed all of them.”
So how did it feel when the final first-week tally (671,542 copies, lest we forget, the third largest of all time and the highest ever for a male solo star) came in?
“I was blown away,” he smiles, allowing himself a rare moment of triumphant contemplation. “I join an amazingly impressive list of artists, which is really cool.”
Sheeran knows his numbers, although today he plays down his interest in the business side of things (“It’s important to be savvy, be aware but not take it too seriously”), apart from when asked if he ever contemplated keeping ÷ off streaming services, as the likes of Taylor Swift and Adele had done.
“Never,” he says firmly. “I want as many people as possible to be able to listen to my music.”
And, as it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
Here, then, for Christmas, is the greatest inside story ever told, of how the great ÷ brought joy to the world, as witnessed by Team Sheeran’s very own three wise men…
As soon as Stuart Camp walked out on stage at Glastonbury Festival he knew everything was going to be OK.
Backstage, an “incredibly nervous” Sheeran was, for perhaps the first time ever, manifesting those nerves “in an obvious way”.
“He was literally like, ‘I’m shitting myself’,” laughs the Rocket Music exec, who steered Sheeran from sofa-surfing obscurity to top billing at the world’s biggest festival.
“We were outside our comfort zone. We’ve become a very well-oiled live touring machine, then suddenly we weren’t in control.
Having to bring in a new stage set, playing to an audience that hadn’t paid to see Ed Sheeran… It was like, ‘Is anyone going to turn up?’ So walking out on stage before he went on and seeing that the crowd was beyond the horizon was probably the highlight of several years for me…”
Sheeran, of course, went on to play “an absolute blinder”, delighting the field and confusing TV viewers with his loop pedal, which led some new to the live experience to accuse Sheeran of miming on social media.
“But that’s the beauty of it,” beams Camp, as ever taking the positives. “I love people seeing Ed live for the first time, because it’s so out of this world.
It’s all about reaching that new audience so if people are ignorant it’s because they really are new to it all…”
And Sheeran, despite already being on the A-list following 2014’s X (an album which revived so extensively in 2017 it’s in the Top 10 sellers of the year), has reached a lot of new people this year.
At his home in Clapham – where, regular readers will be pleased to hear, he is finally sufficiently au fait with the layout to know where the sugar is – Camp is notably less coy than his client about whether he’d anticipated ending the year in charge of the planet’s biggest pop star.
“As soon as the record was there, the realisation that [he] could be was definitely there,” he shrugs. “I’ve never been the sort of person to say that sort of thing or even think it internally but, yes, I must have done.
For me, it’s just cementing the position we were in, it’s proving that nothing was a fluke and he’s worked hard enough and is talented enough.
We’ve shown he does deserve to be where he is and it really couldn’t have gone better. It’d be hard to find anything we’re genuinely disappointed with.”
Which is not to say they’re entirely satisfied. Camp stresses that his and Sheeran’s modus operandi is “jumpers for goalposts, because the goalposts always get moved”.
As soon as Sheeran reaches some seemingly unscaleable peak, he sets his sights on another, and it’s Camp’s job to help get him there.
So despite the small matter of a global stadium tour in 2018 (Sheeran will play 19 stadium dates in the UK alone, and perform to over one sixth of the Irish population), there are already “tentative” thoughts about the next record (“He’s always making music, though it’s ideas rather than plans”).
But there is also a determination to take ÷ into the upper echelons of all-time album best-sellers.
“Adele is always going to be a marker,” he says. “That’s what you strive for. And in the US, we’re very happy with how it is, but on radio and in sales there’s still work to be done. Ed will never stop.”
That point was proven when the ÷ campaign hit its only, rather literal, bump in the road. Camp was awoken one Sunday morning in October by Sheeran’s girlfriend asking to be put on the star’s car insurance so she could drive him home from Ipswich hospital.
Sheeran was riding a friend’s bike when he hit the front brake too hard and went over the handlebars, breaking his arms and causing a string of Asian dates to be cancelled.
“There were lots of emails from him saying, ‘Are you angry with me?’” smiles Camp. “But there was sort of no point, it was done. It’s good for everyone to realise they are human.”
A guilt-stricken, but far from bed-ridden Sheeran used his time off to redouble his promotional efforts at home, helping propel Perfect to the chart summit, despite it becoming a Top 5 hit earlier in the year when Sheeran took over the Top 20. And Camp knows that they’ve been lucky in other ways too.
“People ask me quite a lot if I would ever go back and start again with another act,” he says. “I wouldn’t, because it’s a lot of work. It scares me about how to try and break through from nothing.
We were lucky timing-wise, we started on the streaming wave and rode it up. But now to fight your way through from ground zero might not be so easy.
Things change every time we release a record. Me and Ed will go on tour for two years and then go and sit with Ben Cook and go, ‘So what are the rules now?’ Because everything changes…”
Everything except Ed, of course…
Ben Cook wasn’t thinking about the new streaming landscape when he realised ÷ was a classic. The Atlantic UK president was driving up the M3, with Supermarket Flowers on repeat.
“I nearly had a crash because I was welling up,” says Cook. “There are so many emotions covered on that record.
He has the power to move people in so many ways and that’s really across this record. I’m really proud to be involved in that.”
And Atlantic has much to be proud of. Cook praises the way every single member of his team pulled out all the stops for ÷, running an impeccably-executed, ground-breaking campaign from the moment Sheeran broke his social media silence by tweeting a blue square on December 13, 2016, to the dropping of Beyoncé’s duet version that makes Perfect the favourite for the Christmas No.1.
“There was huge expectation on Ed to deliver and you never quite know how big something’s going to be,” Cook tells Music Week in Atlantic’s West London office.
“But we were very excited by it and very passionate and committed. The whole Warner company globally bought into it. We knew Ed had a really great record.
There was huge pent-up demand and that gave us a lot of confidence but we couldn’t have predicted it would be this big. It became this huge cultural event, not just a music event.”
A big part of that was the decision to return with not one, but two singles; R&B banger Shape Of You and the more alternative Castle On The Hill.
Together, both songs covered all bases, both hitting No.1 on the Airplay Chart and dominating the Top 2 for weeks on end.
“It was born out of knowing we had this great record that covered all these different styles,” says Cook.
“We were debating the strengths of each track and it just occurred to me that we were no longer limited by a binary release plan and we could actually give people more.
But also, it was such a good record we felt we could afford to do that. We had a couple of pivotal meetings with our most trusted partners and, both on the streaming side and the broadcast side, people loved the idea.
When that happened, it felt like, ‘Wow, we’ve not only come up with this really good idea but we might actually pull it off…’.”
And pull it off they did. The subsequent album was a multi-format hit and blew the notion that you couldn’t get big sales if your album was streaming for free out of the water (at least until Taylor Swift released Reputation in November).
“We looked at every possible permutation of how to release the album,” shrugs Cook. “It was clear to us that Ed’s loved by so many different fanbases in so many different ways that the strongest launch for us would be to have it everywhere.”
And so the campaign sailed serenely on, capping off a “brilliant journey” begun when Cook and A&R manager Ed Howard signed Sheeran to Asylum almost seven years ago.
Much has changed commercially since then but, according to Cook, “very little” with Sheeran personally.
“He still has an impeccable code of conduct, ethics, morals and principles,” says Cook.
“He still cares about all the right things. A lot of artists, when they become successful, want to compress their work into a few premium moments, but Ed wanted to do the whole [promotional] thing again, and that’s enormously valuable.”
Does he still listen to his label?
“Probably more so than he ever did, which is really rare,” Cook laughs. “I’m really proud that our relationship is a partnership.
Ed and Stuart value us and obviously we value them. We’ve all been through a lot together and there’s a lot of trust and respect there.”
As well as steering the year’s biggest album campaign, Cook has made sure that, even in such a banner year, his label is not defined solely by Sheeran, with the likes of Clean Bandit, Rita Ora and Anne Marie also enjoying stellar 2017 success, while the label’s Artist Albums market share for the year has soared.
Next year his thoughts will turn to breaking new acts, as well as pushing ÷ towards “the 3m+ bracket” (it's currently on 2.508m).
“The great thing is Ed will never stop,” he smiles. “There’s more in the tank for sure. This album will last for decades.”
Of course, all Ed Sheeran’s innovative release strategies would count for little if his songs weren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, ÷ showcases a songwriting talent that is still developing, to the extent that Sheeran’s own records are no longer enough to contain it.
“You’ve always got belief Ed is going to write more and more, but he just surpasses every imaginable boundary or peak he can hit,” says Guy Moot, UK MD/president, worldwide creative at Sheeran’s publisher Sony/ATV.
“Not just because he’s an incredible artist and writes from the heart and the soul, but because he can write for everybody and everything, and not in a contrived way.
He’s very happy to give his publishers songs to pitch and you can place him with country artists, electronic artists or urban artists. He’s still very true to himself, but can be pitched to and interpreted by so many different people.”
Sheeran’s supply of extra-curricular hits showed no signs of drying up this year but his own songs also show his range.
Shape Of You is perhaps the only song capable of appearing on both an M&S advert and in a grime remix featuring Stormzy (whose appearance with Sheeran at the BRIT Awards in February super-charged the rapper’s own mainstream breakthrough). Although Moot is rather more exercised by the awards ceremony that snubbed his writer.
“Shape Of You is song of the year, I don’t care what the Grammys say,” seethes Moot. “If you asked anybody in the street pretty much anywhere in the world, they’d tell you that was the song of the year. It’s an amazing song because it ticks so many boxes.”
Moot says that Sheeran often comes up with sync pitches himself while maintaining a much-higher-than-average hit rate with his prolific writing, something the publisher doesn’t see changing any time soon.
“I think he’ll continue for a very long time,” says Moot. “It’s not like he’s got a hot sound for a minute, the guy has an incredible musical ear but also an incredible vision for the music business. He could quite easily run Sony/ATV or a major record company.”
For now though, Sheeran is still dedicated to his day job, and insisting his life hasn’t changed much since becoming a global star (Camp says the star has largely avoided the attentions of the paparazzi, apart from when he broke his arms).
“It’s pretty much the same as it was - I just go outside less, I think!” Sheeran laughs. “There’s light and shade in anything. I had to get used to the amount of backlash but that’s just part and parcel.”
Things are unlikely to quieten down any time soon with touring plans extending to at least summer 2019. But Sheeran is determined to keep his feet on the ground even while others are reaching for the superlatives.
“I think people just connected with the songs, as simple as that sounds,” he shrugs as he attempts to explain ÷’s phenomenal success.
“I believe that the album has moments for everyone too. I really wouldn’t know the ‘secret formula’ to it though.
“Is there anything left I’d like to achieve?” he ponders. “Not really! All of this is a bonus. When I was starting out, my end goal was to go gold and play Shepherd’s Bush Empire.
I’ve worked hard but looking back on this year is pretty mind-blowing. I’m looking forward to the stadium tour next year and seeing what 2018 brings…”
And with those typically self-effacing comments, the 2017 Artist Of The Year heads off to try and persuade the last few people on Planet Earth that haven’t bought ÷ that they really should consider shelling out.
He may have had an amazing year. But when you’re Ed Sheeran, even better things are always just around the corner.