Even coming from a guy who’s built his entire persona around telling it like it is, last week’s admission from Ed Sheeran came as a surprise.
Right at the end of NME’s extremely trendy listicle feature ‘50 Things You Didn’t Know About Ed Sheeran’, amid the usual celebrity trivia about pets/tattoos/famous friends, Ed revealed his business masterplan. “I’m working on a 15 album maximum profit plan” he said, apparently without a hint of irony. “I do have profit benchmarks. The last album was 14 million, and this one I’m going for £20m… why not want to win?” If all this is enough to make you want to rise up and seize the means of production, don’t worry – music fans saw through Sheeran’s grotesque corporate plot and ‘÷‘ flopped, just like Donald Trump’s outrageous presidential bid last November…
Actually, the cynical ginger hit machine is now, by some metrics, the most successful artist ever. Writing two comeback singles – one tailored to Radio 1 and the other to Radio 2 – was a pretty effective move, as it turns out. In the week of its release, all 16 of the tracks on ‘÷’ (yes, even the Irish one) were in the top 20. Of the Top 10, 9 tracks were by Sheeran, with only the chart-busting pop coalition of Coldplay and the Chainsmokers enough to deny him the clean sweep.
The charts have been broken for a while. The signs were there – Drake’s complete domination of last summer’s number 1 spot with One Dance should’ve warned us. But Sheeran’s chart takeover with an *album* is unprecedented, and it’s down to one thing. Streaming broke the charts – it just took a ruthless businessman disguised as a guy in a hoodie to show it.
The problem with streaming, as far as the charts are concerned at least, is how it measures success. Back in the day, a record’s sales potential was measured by – guess what – how many copies it sold. Sales were driven by radio stations, which had a symbiotic relationship with the charts. DJs wouldn’t play the same record 24/7 just because it was at number 1, even if you phoned them loads of times and asked really nicely. This meant there was still room for new artists on the radio, which in turn helped them get the exposure needed to climb the charts. Make sense?
Streaming changed all that by moving in both on radio’s territory with tailored playlists, and on the music sales market by giving people an alternative to buying music outright. A few years ago, a Sheeran super-fan who wanted to listen to ‘÷’ round the clock would have had to buy the record themselves – that way, it would still only count as a single sale, even if you played it til it caught fire. These days, when Ed commands his faithful followers to ‘play the new songs as many times as you can’, every stream counts towards a song’s chart position, and you’re left with a chart that tells you very little about anything. It also doesn’t help that the music on ‘÷’ is so homogenous and dull that you can just stick it on in the background, racking up more streams (sorry Sheeran fans, I thought you’d have stopped reading by this point).
So what now? If we can’t rely on the charts to tell us what’s popular, and musicians can’t rely on streaming revenue to pay the bills, something’s got to give. Solving the riddle of how to make streaming services profitable – let alone making sure those profits are fairly distributed amongst the artists making the music – is a hugely complicated problem, and one that the music industry’s best talent is working on night and day. But when it comes to how fans can support artists, surprisingly little has changed. Streaming, like radio, is a passive activity – if you want to challenge corporate behemoths like Ed Sheeran and make sure smaller musicians get the attention (and money) they need and deserve, buy their records and go to their shows. For the charts, it’s evolve or die: if every song on the top 10 is taken from whichever album got the hardest marketing push on Spotify that week, people will start looking elsewhere.
Words by Matt Moody