I May Be Crazy, Don't Mind Me
Every generation has its musical superstars. The acts and artists whose celebrity, popularity and perhaps above all relevance, means that their latest album release becomes not so much the availability of a work of music but a genuine cultural event. A touchstone for history and a chance for people to look back and say "I was there". Few are the acts who actually achieve this, though. Michael Jackson got there in the 1980s, in a way Madonna never truly did. U2 had their moment in the 1990s, as did Oasis as the millennium turned. Modern trends have now meant such events have the capacity to be global on a stage even these musical icons could not have conceived. In 2015 there was Adele's third album. This week it is the turn of Ed Sheeran.
That the release of his much-anticipated third album ÷ became such a massive cultural event should not have come as too much of a surprise. Two months ago he gave us just a small glimpse of his popularity with the dual release of lead singles Shape Of You and Castle On The Hill which arrived at the top of the sales and streams market pretty much instantaneously and have proved a devil of a job to shift ever since. Those of us who opined that the half million plus first-week sales of Adele's 25 back in 2015 were the dead cat bounce of the ailing market for long playing albums have been proved spectacularly wrong. Perhaps just as significantly, however, he has played a promotional blinder and managed to achieve a level of music charts domination that whilst not necessarily available to many who have gone before him, has indeed never been achieved by any artist ever. And surely never will again.
First then the raw stats. We already knew the album was on course for a massive week when it was reported to have sold well over 200,000 in its first day on sale alone. In fact, ÷ ends the week with a grand total of 672,000 copies sold. That's the biggest single week sale for any male soloist in history (previous record holder: Robbie Williams with Intensive Care) and the third highest weekly sales total of all time for an album, trailing only the 696,000 copies of Be Here Now by Oasis and the 800,000 of 25 by Adele.
We sometimes talk about how big selling albums can sell "more than the rest of the Top 10 put together" or similar stats. Ed Sheeran's album this week has sold more than the entire Top 500 albums in the market put together. Two of those 500 albums are his own records as well, his entire back catalogue to date nestling comfortably inside the Top 5 with x at Number 4 and his debut + at Number 5. Curiously the last three acts to manage three simultaneous Top 5 albums all did so in the wake of their deaths - Michael Jackson, David Bowie and Prince. The last living act to pull off the trick were the George Mitchell Minstrells who occupied positions 1,2 and 5 for the final album chart of 1962. In all, Ed Sheeran records accounted for 30.92% of the entire album market last week, or to put it another way, almost 1 in every 3 albums purchased or streamed in the UK.
Sheeran's new album also sets a new benchmark for album streams too, online plays accounting for 79,000 copies of that reported sale, and thus shattering the record set by Stormzy just seven days ago.
What do we take from all of the above? That there are some things that the history books just cannot show. This is one of those rare occasions when saying "Ed Sheeran has the Number One album of the week on the Official UK Albums chart" actually doesn't even begin to tell half the story.
And that's before we've dealt with what he has done to the singles chart.
What Ed Has Done To The Singles Chart
From the very start of the digital era, when a "single" didn't have to be specifically released as such and anything available for sale (or these days stream) was free to land on the singles chart if it was popular enough, people grabbed hold of the idea than an act, in theory, could achieve an almost total clean sweep with songs from an album. Given their high profile absence at first from digital services, it was common to see journalists speculate that on the day the release finally took place The Beatles could fully monopolise the Top 10. I spent years insisting that was unlikely and indeed was proven correct when the digital debut finally happened.
Yet as time wore on the very biggest, or most clearly focused acts started to creep towards this possibility. Beyonce, Bieber, The Weeknd and only last week Stormzy released new albums and saw every single one of their tracks land briefly at various places up and down the singles listing. In one week in November 2015 Justin Bieber singles accounted for eight of that week's Top 40 singles, setting a new record for a living and still-active recording act. The only performer ever to surpass that was Michael Jackson who a week after his death in July 2009 had 13 of the 40 biggest singles of the week.
Well, tear up those notes. Every single one of the 16 tracks from Ed Sheeran's album makes the singles chart this week. Every single one of them inside the Top 20. Yet it goes further than that. Ed Sheeran tracks this week account for 9 of this week's Top 10 singles and every single one of positions 1-6. Justin Bieber managing the entire Top 3? Utterly meaningless. The Beatles famously occupying all of the Top 5 places on the Billboard Hot 100? Forget that, we now have a brand new benchmark for artist domination. It hardly requires me to spell this out, but let us do so for the record. This is the far and away the largest singles chart clean sweep achieved by any act in history. And if we ever see the likes of this again in my lifetime I'll be staggered.
For the record, until today the high water mark for most simultaneous Top 10 hits was held by Frankie Laine who claimed 4 out of 10 for three consecutive weeks in November 1953. So that's another record that has held since the 1950s and which has now been shattered.
The most popular track? Well, that remains Shape Of You which further consolidates its entrenched position at the top of the market and spends a ninth straight week as the nation's official Number One single. In doing so it matches the chart run of its immediate predecessor at the top - Clean Bandit's Rockabye - thus ensuring that everything else aside, chart history is made this week. For the first time ever we have had back to back Number One singles spending as many as nine weeks each at the top of the charts. The last male solo singer to have such a long-running Number One hit was Bryan Adams with Everything I Do (I Do It For You) which was in the middle of a 16 week run at the top when Ed Sheeran was just a babe in arms back in 1991. This is to overlook Drake's One Dance of course but that was credited as a three-way dance rather than a solo single.
So that wasn't really a mystery. The true intrigue lay in discovering which of the plethora of album tracks would emerge as the most popular. All tracks are released as equals of course, but only some go on to achieve true greatness. To the entertainment of many, the most popular hitherto unreleased cut from the album turns out to be the one his record label reportedly hated and pressured him to leave off the running order. The cod-Irish lilt of Galway Girl lands neatly on the chart as the Number 2 single of the week, the track a showcase for Sheeran's talents as both rapper and singer as he neatly switches from one style of delivery to the other and often in mid-phrase to boot. Once upon a time, it would be the kind of track to be earmarked for the next single following the album release. Yet here it is now already a certified smash.
We should here offer some degree of congratulations to the Chainsmokers and Coldplay who managed to interrupt what would be an otherwise unbroken 14-song streak of Ed Sheeran tracks, their single Something Just Like This clinging on desperately at Number 7 this week (Sales: 2, Streams: 17) as literally the only other current hit single with the kind of volume to compete with the Sheeran invasion. As an aside, we should note that the seven new entries inside the Top 10 this week equals the all-time record first set back in the late 1990s and which last occurred in March 2005. At a stroke that doubles the total of Top 10 entries for the whole of 2017 so far and means there have now been just two less than in the whole of 2016.
In a week when just about every stat you care to name is a record of some description, my favourite one of all is the fact that the nine Top 10 singles all taken from ÷ this week, alongside the already released How Would You Feel (Paean) (which holds firm at Number 11), mean that in one fell swoop the album contains more Top 10 hits (10) than any other album in chart history, surpassing the 8 or 9 (I still dispute the exact number) contained within the digital grooves of Calvin Harris' 18 Months.
I'm just trying to work out who I have the most sympathy for in the wake of this unprecedented clean sweep. Is it acts such as Katy Perry, Rag'N'Bone Man, Kygo and Jax Jones whose comfortable Top 10 hits are - at least for this week - swept aside by a tidal wave? Or maybe it is the likes of Lorde and Little Mix who also had the misfortune to have high profile singles out this week but whose chart positions (28 and 39 respectively) are little more than an irrelevance in the grand scheme of things? Or is it really the programmers of Top 20 and Top 40 countdown shows on TV music channels who this week have to somehow construct a programme around the fact that about 80% of the songs to be featured have nothing resembling an official video?
More Questions Than Answers
The big question then is why now? Why has Ed Sheeran managed the kind of unprecedented chart domination we've seen this week when nobody else has come close before. The answer I think is because amongst so-called superstar acts he is more or less unique in his across the board appeal. Most significantly he's both a middle of the road performer appealing widely to what you might term the more mature segment of music purchasers, those still wedded to either the physical or download market. Yet he is also hip, urban and with a huge youth appeal - and as a result, he's utterly destroyed the competition at streaming. Take Stormzy seven days ago for example, although his overall sale was on a much smaller scale, it was still skewed dramatically towards the streams of the youth market. Bieber and The Weeknd fell into the same category. But Sheeran is different, his tracks mostly clocked up significant numbers at download alongside their record-busting streaming totals. By cornering both halves of the market he's ended up in a unique position to commandeer the top end of the singles chart. You'd be hard-pressed to name any other current act with that kind of ability.
As noted above, 12% of the album's sales can be attributed to streams. And it is streaming volume which has been the most direct contributor to the near-total Sheeran clean sweep in the Top 10 - as even the briefest of glances at Spotify's daily updates during the week would have proved. Throughout the last seven days all 16 Sheeran tracks have been racking up numbers that nobody else could begin to approach, with even the least listened to track Save Myself managing around 400,000 plays a day. Taking the full verified sales table in isolation the Sheeran effect is less pronounced, with "only" four singles in the Top 10 and just two more in the rest of the Top 20. It is a different matter on the streaming chart where the entire Top 16 this week are the 16 tracks from the Ed Sheeran album. This is an album which is unique in the modern era, one which large numbers of people have genuinely sat down to play all the way through rather than skipping from hit to hit. Just like in the good old days.
Bring On The Negatives
Now we've drunk all that in the backlash can begin. Regardless of the fact that this week is an extraordinary one-off, a briefly skewed market of the kind we used to only expect to see at Christmastime, people are still not happy. Even when the first midweek figures began to trickle out and the potential scale of Ed Sheeran's chart domination filtered through, the complaints started in earnest. "This shouldn't be allowed," we were told, "it is wrong that album tracks count equally as singles and just unfair on all the other acts that they are shoved out of the way. Only designated singles should count for the singles chart, everything else should be barred".
To which I must confess my first reaction was: Bore off. We've had ten years of an anything goes singles market where any track has been free to chart at any time. And nobody has had a problem with it before. It has given us random hits from the past reappearing thanks to TV commercials or talent show performers. Whilst I may not always approve of the motives behind it, an unrestricted singles chart has led to almost comically random singles appearing near the top end, celebrating dead politicians or attempting to wrest back control of the Christmas chart. And that's always been a virtue, not a negative.
In the past, we've had singles charts constrained by arbitrary rules on qualification. Back in 2006 to appease what were then important stakeholders in the charts process - the high street stores - digital downloads had to be tied closely to physical versions of singles. Tracks could be removed from the chart if their physical release had been withdrawn from sale two weeks earlier. It meant ludicrous situations such as Chasing Cars by Snow Patrol spending weeks as one of the ten most purchased tracks of the week and yet invisible to what was sold as the most accurate singles chart in the world simply because its CD had been deleted. When acts began to release teaser singles tied to a pre-purchase of an album people became upset that these were disqualified from the singles chart, so the rules were changed to accommodate them. And now people want to reverse this because they feel one week of Ed Sheeran album tracks upsets their own internalised vision of what is "fair" and how the charts are supposed to look? Do me a favour.
Yet within the industry, there will be some who hope this is very much a one-off rather than a developing trend. Clean sweeps are fine as novelties and weeks like this something to celebrate and appreciate, but if they start to become the norm for every "big name" record release then there starts to be a sense of dull predictability about it. And yes, it is deeply frustrating to work hard to push a single by A.N. Other act and see that relegated to the lower rungs because it has the misfortune to be out in the same week the big shot superstar releases their latest work. If enough people want rules to be changed to stop certain things happening then they get changed. The debate which will follow what we've seen this week will be absorbing to watch.
It will actually all come down to whether Ed Sheeran has single-handedly rescued the album market. As you may have seen me write in the past, nobody is really sure what the future of the old-fashioned album is in this new wild west era of one-off streams of tracks. The album might be dying as an artistic statement in its own right, reduced to being just a collection of existing hits - the Calvin Harris method if you will. And yet along has come Sheeran with a body of work that has been enthusiastically received and consumed largely as a whole, both by those who still own CD players and apparently those of a different generation who until now would never have contemplated sitting down (or walking around) and listening to 16 tracks by the same man in one sitting. Perhaps more so than placing nine tracks in the Top 10 all at once this week, that's Ed Sheeran's most extraordinary achievement of all.