Want to be more popular? Ask yourself: what would Ed do?
If we acknowledge that the current criticism of Mr Sheeran may be, at least in part, due to jealousy, is it better to wonder what lessons Ed can teach the music industry and musicians generally?
He is clearly the right man for these times, one who can straddle pop and ‘RnB’ whilst keeping a semblance of credibility, hanging with the right icons and failing to offend the majority.
That’s the superficial stuff. He is a singer-songwriter in a singer-songwriter dominated industry. One who understands the power of song to make connections, a story teller with a populist eye.
His songs resonate with a wide audience, old and young. Universal themes and generic melodies that are standard and traditional. The big selling stars of the current music business are those who have cross-generational appeal, something achieved by acknowledging the past-masters.
To some people, I know that will seem like an apologist’s summary for trite and all-too-familiar songs and structures. It is no exaggeration that I listened to ‘Divide’ once and recognised similarities with many pre-existing hits. Accusations of plagiarism are best left to lawyers, for now we only need note that Ed rules the roost and that should be good news for British music.
If you seek to emulate Ed the solution is to keep it simple. Be sensitive, romantic, purposely meaningful. Fill your songs with sentiment, genuine, misplaced or fake, just sell it well. There’s no point in burying your intent in a mountain of metaphors, be direct and obvious. Find the big emotional line and repeat it often, no-one will care much about the surrounding verses.
If you can touch enough people with your words and melodies the rampant criticisms will matter not a jot. As Sheeran himself has said ‘I’m at a point where, even if I get a one-star review for every album I release for the rest of my life, I’ll still be able to play music’.
Critics have never been much concerned about being redundant. The greater problem is possibly that Ed is quite hard to hate. He does what he does and you can like it or not. He’s not breaking any boundaries (other than those in downloads or streaming, album & ticket sales) but what he does he does well enough to appeal to millions.
Whilst he does that there’ll be a production line of identikit attempts to emulate him. Some will have more success than others and much of this may be down to luck (or looks) and having the right backing. That the latter is still so important in 2017 is a betrayal of everything we might have expected from the open-source digital age.
Music fans are conservative, popular music appeals to that conservatism and is echoed ad infinitum by radio stations & playlists who will always play safe to hit the highest numbers. Record labels now gamble less and are more heavily reliant on research rather than instinct. Everything is automated now, why would you expect this to be different? Run away from it or run towards it, at some point you probably should decide which side you want to be on. Be like Ed or not.