Ed Sheeran announced in December 2015 that he was taking a break from social media, 52 weeks later on the 13th December 2016 he returned with a simple plain blue image, causing huge speculation upon news of his return to social media (Brandle, L.). This was the beginning to the chain reaction that followed, as the blue image was in fact the background to his new album cover. Ed then left people to speculate for 3 weeks until he announced in a swift Instagram video using Boomerang that there was ‘new music’ to be dropped on the 6th of January. Still not specifying what or how much he was releasing, it kept a needed sense of mystery around the album. He then dropped his first two singles to promote Divide, focusing heavily on who his songs targeted as individual pieces of music. He decided to kick off the lengthy song-by-song album release by putting out Castle on a Hill aimed at BBC Radio 2 listeners and Shape of You for BBC Radio 1 (BBC, 2017). This is a great example of market segmentation as Ed chose to write songs based directly on which demographic each radio station’s listeners are, stating “I had in my mind what sound should be on what song, and which subject matter would be on which song.” (Savage,M)
Another example of this specific targeting is shown on his second release of Shape of you, where he added Stormzy as a featured artist, debuting at the Brit Awards 2017. This collaboration allowed the song to reach a new wider audience, and importantly for Ed, enabled him to get radio play on BBC Radio 1 Xtra. Radio play is important to record labels as the exposure that is given to the song can be the deciding factor as to whether it becomes a hit or not, especially via BBC Radio 1 and 2. These stations have broad audience, as ‘nine out of ten adults in the UK listen to the radio each week’ (BBC Trust Service Review).
Ed focuses heavily on the live sector and touring to bring in most of his income and uses his albums as a promotional tool to aid ticket sales. This strategy is most likely due to the demise of record sales in the past decade, as music has shifted towards streaming rather than album sales, bringing down profit margins. ‘Track sales dropped to 404.3 million units from 531.6 million units. Current track sales are leading the descent; songs released in the last 18 months saw sales fall nearly 40 percent.’ Whilst ‘listeners streamed 208.9 billion songs (which translates to 139.2 million album units) between January and July 2016.’ (Christman, 2016). These figures show that sales are dropping dramatically, making Ed’s focus on the live sector and pushing as many shows as possible, the best way to tackle the problem. The money that used to be made from album sales and the profits that were gained from selling an actual physical product, for example if a CD cost £8 to manufacture with storage and shipping costs included, it could be sold for prices up to £20. These large profit margins allowed the industry to focus heavily on recorded music for a long time, and only in recent years we have seen the shift over towards elaborate live shows.
Music consumers continuously crave new music and live performances, therefore with Divide, Ed released the tickets for the connecting tour a month before the album had even come out (The Sun, 2017). This would usually be seen as a risky move after being completely out of the industry for over a year, however, with Ed’s huge following he managed to sell out within days of the initial ticket release for his UK and European tours. This strategy has shortened the album release cycle and is being taken up by many artists all over the world. Albums are being pushed out every couple of years now for big international touring artists, with a large amount of recording being done during the previous tour to minimise wasted time and maximise profits.
Ed is able to sell out huge tours within days because of his strong brand image and loyalty that is pushed out by his team. Only recently has he been called the ‘the world’s first stadium busker” (The Big Issue, 2016), giving insight into the simplistic branding that goes along with his new-age popstar status. He is portrayed as a normal guy from a small village in Suffolk, once homeless whilst trying to find success in London at the start of his career, his bedraggled looks create a sense of authenticity in an industry where much of it seems staged. He also sticks to simplicity during touring, making the main focal point just him, his guitar and a loop pedal. This has been kept the same since Ed’s first ever album tour for Plus, keeping a strong continual brand image is paramount in gaining and keeping a loyal audience, adding value to each of his products. (Blumson, 2016)
Music is becoming easier to access every day, aided by the fact that everybody who owns a smartphone will automatically have advancing technology like Apple Music and Spotify. Ed’s willingness to work with streaming services allows his content to be easily accessible, unlike some artists who in recent years have battled against the idea of streaming. Taylor Swift, for example, took her entire song catalog off of streaming services because she didn’t want to “contribute her life’s work to an experiment that does not fairly compensate the writers, producers, artist and creators”. (Denham, 2015) However, Spotify CEO Daniel Ek told Billboard that ‘Her YouTube streams went through the roof’, proving that her followers were not prompted to buy her album by her withdrawal, but instead chose to move platforms. This is because music itself has become free as a product, originating from piracy and now settling within streaming services. (Witt, S)
Ed Sheeran is loved by people of all ages, this is because his songs reflect everyday life and do not contain vulgar references. He often dives into different genres through collaborations to widen his target audience, but he is one of the few artists that could get away with mass marketing. Although, the demographic that he will likely get the most income from ticket and merchandise sales are females aged 13-29, as this is the age with the largest amount of disposable income, with less bills to pay and parental support likely. Therefore, Ed’s campaign for Divide did a good job of targeting the younger audience, with a lot of press surrounding his collaboration with Stormzy, allowing him more radio play on BBC Radio 1xtra to reach their audience. Also, all news about the album was released via twitter and Instagram, two social networking sites who’s target audience are also 13-29 year olds, putting content directly in their view. ‘Twitter has over 271 million active users who tend to be younger, with 35% between the ages of 18 and 29. Of Instagram’s 200 million active users, 53% are between the ages of 18 and 29.’ (Walton, 2017).
According to a study made by the Telegraph, ‘Teenagers spend 27 hours a week online’ (Anderson, 2016), therefore to target a teenage audience, content needs to be continuously spilt out online. Ed’s team made sure the album got people talking with his long-awaited return to social media being the focus point, and afterwards they just slowly kept leaking small snippets of information on the album, sometimes even dropping surprise songs. This calculated spontaneity is fuel for young people as it always leaves the audience wanting more, and the longer it goes on the more hype is built up around it. However, this type of marketing strategy will only work when an artist is fully established like Ed, with an enormous loyal fan base who will aid with marketing merely by starting conversations and forums. This can be shown by the sheer amount of twitter accounts made purely as fan accounts to support Ed, adding to the multiple fan armies on twitter for different artists.
There is one problem, however, with putting an album release and tour only weeks apart. It doesn’t leave any leeway for things to go wrong, as an album release involves long press days, multiple interviews and a lot of travel, making the artist extremely unavailable and exhausted. This means that heavy planning and set contingency plans are essential prior to either release, shown greatly by Ed and his team with this album, as everything so far with the album release, the promotional press tour and now the UK live tour, seems to be going to plan. The marketing strategy used during the release of Divide has been successful with a sold-out tour and within the first week all 16 songs on the album were in the Top 20 chart in the UK. (Snapes, 2017)
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, E. (2017). U.S. Record Industry Sees Album Sales Sink to Historic Lows (Again) — But People Are Listening More Than Ever. [online] Billboard. Available at: http://www.billboard.com/articles/business/7430863/2016-soundscan-nielsen-music-mid-year-album-sales-sink-streaming-growth [Accessed 3 May 2017].
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