The business of being Ed Sheeran
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My goal is to have the Christmas number one album,” says Ed Sheeran. “I’m going to do it. I’m going to make sure it happens. I’ve done everything. I’ve even gone into the HMV offices and played to their people so they give us better positioning in their stores.”
Sheeran smiles. He sounds completely confident. His blue eyes are bright beneath his copper-coloured fringe. He is sitting on a sofa in his large, empty dressing room, drinking a Coke. A mini-fridge of assorted cans and bottles remains untouched. “I never drink the rider,” he says. Considering he’s on stage at the enormous Hydro venue in Glasgow in less than two hours, his relaxed demeanour is surprising.
Four years ago, Sheeran was a 19-year-old guitar player from middle-class Suffolk, busking round London, sleeping on friends’ sofas. Now he has two bestselling albums, + (pronounced “Plus”) and x (pronounced “Multiply”). x, released in June, was streamed 23 million times on Spotify in its first week, a record for the platform. It has now sold three million copies worldwide. His singles “Sing” and “Thinking Out Loud” have been number one hits this year. Last year he established himself in America, following a six-month tour with Taylor Swift, who is now a close friend. By the end of this sellout UK tour, he will have played to 275,000 people, in venues ranging from Belfast’s Odyssey Arena to London’s O2, where he performed over four nights. They’re huge, cavernous spaces. He is playing them — and filling them — entirely unaccompanied.
In a far corner of the dressing room is a head-height travelling wardrobe. Its spacious interior holds just six shirts, two T-shirts, a hoodie and six shoeboxes. Today Sheeran is wearing black trainers, black jeans and black T-shirt. A red-and-black checked shirt covers his chunky, tattooed arms. When I see him onstage later tonight he will be wearing the same clothes. No fancy stage-wear, no rock star demands, no entourage. Not even any musicians. The only fuss happening around Ed Sheeran is because of his music.
Sheeran grew up in the market town of Framlingham, 100 miles northeast of London. His mother is a jewellery maker, his father an art historian and curator, lecturing in the Suffolk area. They have another son, Matthew, two years Ed’s senior, who also makes music, for advertising and wildlife documentaries. The brothers are close and have tried writing together, “but he does a completely different thing”, says Sheeran with fraternal pride. “It’s a clash of minds. Matt’s more classically trained — he studied at the Guildhall and the Royal something or other of music.”
By his own admission, Sheeran wasn’t academically inclined. His father criticised his lack of application. But much as he’s close to his parents, he wasn’t listening.
“I was quite a cynical kid. I couldn’t see how learning trigonometry affected what I wanted to do. Whereas when I sat and learnt a song I was thinking, ‘I don’t know what that chord is.’ Or, ‘That melody’s cool.’ So I’d want to know how to sing and play that. I always wanted to do something artistic. You can’t teach someone how to be creative, you have to let them discover how to do it for themselves.”
Aged 17, Sheeran persuaded his parents to let him leave school and move to London. With a rucksack and a guitar but no firm prospects, he must have had a good case to make. “I guess the case was, ‘All I want to do is play shows. And if I live there I can do one every night. Whereas if I stay here I can do one a week, at best.’”
His father, John, was supportive. He used to clip out magazine interviews with singer-songwriters and highlight key quotes. His son remembers one from Scottish artist KT Tunstall, who had also struggled for years to be heard: “I didn’t have a Plan B. This was it.” His father approved of this stance. “My dad said, ‘If you really want to do it, don’t have a fallback plan. Because you eventually will do it if there’s no other option.’” John Sheeran, it seems, knew the market as well as his son would come to know it.
“My dad’s opinion on it was, ‘If you want to be a musician, you have to do what [noughties singer-songwriter] James Morrison did and play 200 shows a year, so just go and do it.’ But mum,” he admits, “wasn’t too keen on the idea.”
Sheeran hit the capital running. He couldn’t afford to “bum about” because otherwise he’d starve and have to ship back to Suffolk, tail between his legs. In London he learnt which Tube and railway stations didn’t have security barriers, so he could scam free travel, and based his activities near those stations.
In his first year he took an Access To Music course in Bromley-by-Bow in east London, living on a grant which covered his monthly rent of £400. He was a regular performer at The World’s End pub in Finsbury Park, where his fee was a meal. He gigged all over London, and all over the country, sometimes playing to decent pub crowds; sometimes to literally no one. His chutzpah, however, was boundless, and infectious. In early 2010 he was going through what he has described as a “rough time” — “I was playing the same gigs over and over again, sleeping on the same sofas and drinking a lot.” On a whim, and with only one contact, he flew to Los Angeles. His first gig in the city led to a meeting, and a friendship, with the actor/musician Jamie Foxx. Foxx let Sheeran record in his home studio, and they went partying together.
As is obviously the case now and clearly was then, too, Sheeran is an odd mix: sensitive and earnest — the epitome of the folkie — but with a hustling, hip-hop outlook. As he acknowledges, his attitude was: “I’m going to sell more CDs from my backpack than the other [performer] at the gig. I’m going to make sure I can get an extra song squeezed in. And make sure I can do three gigs a night when someone else is doing one a week.”
When he signed his first record deal with Atlantic after three years of doing the pub singer-songwriter circuit, he ratcheted up his ambitions. “At Atlantic everyone said James Blunt was the hardest-working guy in the music industry. So I asked my manager to get James Blunt’s diary from 2005.” (This was the year the former army captain released “You’re Beautiful”, the ballad which propelled his debut album to eventual global sales of 11 million copies; it was Britain’s bestselling album of the noughties.) He studied Blunt’s diary of shows and told his team: “We’re doing all of that — times two.” He grins. “And that’s exactly what we did. Because he was the hardest-working guy, I wanted to work twice as hard as him.”
To get to that point, Sheeran has had to struggle. He self-funded and self-released five EPs. He didn’t even have a publishing deal, the traditional early injection of support and cash for a songwriter. But that was deliberate — and canny. “I waited. Why? I wanted to buy a house. I thought: ‘If everything f***s up, I’ve still got a house.’”
So he only signed his publishing deal, with Sony, once his first single “The A Team” — a sweet ballad with an edgy theme, about a young drug-addicted prostitute — was a hit. Then he was able to leverage a bigger cash advance from publishers. What if none of the singles from his first album had been a hit? He shrugs.
“I think the most I could have got at that point was about 10 grand. And you can’t get a house for that.” But Sheeran didn’t blink. “I waited until there was a hit. And, ironically, the week “A Team” came out, I recouped the record deal.”
The scale of Sheeran’s success is a phenomenon — and mystifying to some. The music industry is in awe — both of his sales and his business nous. He’s an intensely motivated self-starter, unashamedly career-focused. “Ed is one of those artists that is a true partner,” enthuses Max Lousada, CEO of Warner Music UK, the group that encompasses Atlantic, the label that signed Sheeran. Lousada is also chairman of the BRITs Committee, which oversees the annual Brit Awards — at which, in February, Sheeran is bound to feature heavily. “What I mean by that is he wants to win, and he’s looking at all the challenges and opportunities, and questioning what we’re doing.”
But why him? Why has Sheeran broken through to such a wide and lucrative extent, far beyond the achievements of any of the other singer-songwriters in the market, such as Tom Odell, Ben Howard or Damien Rice?
On one level, it’s just about musicianship. His songs are simple and emotional, with catchy tunes. Teenage kids love Ed Sheeran — a soft-voiced singer who raps, a lyricist influenced by hip-hop — but so do their rock heritage-loving parents. In gender terms, too, his appeal is across the board. George Ergatoudis, head of music at BBC Radio 1, offers: “Ed’s unique in his ability to switch between folk music and black music. His key influences have been Eminem at one end and Damien Rice and Bob Dylan on the other. And he grew in a really organic way — this guy was able to play hip-hop, grime and underground events and convince the urban crowd that he was authentic and real. It’s a very niche combination. The world is saturated with singer-songwriters, and if you don’t have a clear edge, how are you going to cut through? He had a very clear edge.”
Ergatoudis also considers that both Sheeran’s lyrical candour and his professional hunger resonate with younger listeners. Songs such as “The A Team” or the self-explanatory “Drunk” solicit “a strong emotion . . . And if you talk to the Radio 1 audience, a lot of them are ambitious. They don’t necessarily know how to get where they want to go, but they want to be ambitious. And Ed mirrors their ambition but actually made it happen, while being authentic and never selling out.”
Sheeran himself is perfectly clear about what he has done and how he has done it. “I don’t just put songs out. If I’m working 20-hour days, I want to know that things I do will benefit me; that the work is in the right places. I put all my time and effort into making my music successful.”
Sheeran has bought himself a comfortable home in the countryside in Suffolk, near his parents. His original thought was that this would be a party house, a crash pad for the group of hometown mates with whom he’s stayed in touch. But he’s spent time and money furnishing it. “I’ve really made it a home — and now if there’s more than five people round I get really wary.
“About six of my mates came over the other day and I’d just cleaned the house — I love cleaning, that’s my thing,” he says. “I really like making the house perfect. One of them opened a beer and put the cap on the side and I instantly put it in the bin and put the beer on a coaster. I turned into that guy.” He laughs.
A desire for domestic peace is also, perhaps, a function of Sheeran’s romantic status. Since the start of the year he’s been in a relationship with Athina Andrelos. He met her when he was performing in Australia (she was the tour manager for his support act). Now she works for Jamie Oliver, as (in Sheeran’s words) a food team event organiser. He credits her with the mild amount of styling that has attended his wardrobe this year. “She’s largely to thank for the smartness. She’s cleaned me a up a little bit,” Sheeran says — a comment that also applies to his social habits. “I’m so comfortable now. I’m really happy and just focused on making the album work. It’s the best possible thing.”
In Glasgow it’s almost showtime. Sheeran actually groans at having to wind up the interview. He loves discussing his plans and his business. “I could talk for another hour about this,” he beams. But the sold-out crowd of 13,000 is waiting.
Shortly after our interview, it’s announced that Sheeran will play a show next summer at Wembley Stadium — one man and his guitar (and a few effects pedals), 80,000 tickets. Within a week it is sold out. Two further shows have now been added. As FT Weekend Magazine went to press, his album x was number one in the UK charts.
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Photographs: Kalpesh Lathigra; Alex Fairfull; Getty; Corbis
Letter in response to this article:
Cocker led the way with meteoric rise to fame / From David H Wells, Wimborne, Dorset, UK