Ed Sheeran's probably about as far away from the stereotypical idea of a pop star you could imagine.
He doesn’t fit into the One Direction mold (AKA the Simon Cowell manufactured recipe for success) in the slightest. He doesn’t have the floppy hair and bulging biceps record companies seem to think will appeal to the lucrative teenage girl market.
He isn’t ‘rock’ enough to be marketed as a rock star – apart from the occasional swear, he’s pretty vanilla. In fact, a recent meme doing the rounds pointed out that Ed Sheeran looks like a fan queuing up to meet Ed Sheeran.
But Ed Sheeran is huge. Like really huge. He's everywhere. He’s even best friends with Taylor Swift. His new album, Divide, which dropped earlier this month, is breaking records all over – in the US, it had the highest number of sales in its first week of any album this year, in the UK it's the fastest selling album by a male artist ever. And he basically broke the charts when nine of the top ten singles in the UK were his. Nine!
We tried to ask Ed himself (or his management team) what his secret was but he didn’t answer, funny that. So we went to the next best thing, his fans.
So close you could almost touch him (creepy)
Ok, let’s start with the obvious. Ed isn’t what you’d call pin-up material. He probably wouldn’t make the centerfold of any magazine. As Ed himself put it in his single Take It Back, “I don't ever want to be perfect/ Cause I'm a singer that you never want to see shirtless.”
He might not be quite right on that one though, given how many teenage girls buy his songs and go to his concerts – 15-year-old Emma from Hampshire admits she fancies Ed, even though he’s not her usual type. “I used to crush on the 1D lads,” she says. “But then I saw Ed at Party in the Park a few years ago and loved him. He’s so down to earth.”
Let’s face it, boys like Louis Tomlinson or Harry Styles are few and far between in real life. And (if I remember my teenage years correctly) those that are that good-looking are usually so full of themselves they’re about to implode. Ed could literally be the boy next door. He’s obtainable – to the teenage mind – and that makes him appealing.
But there's one thing he does that the boy next door might not. His songs hit on a desire to feel all-encompassing Romeo and Juliet style love. In fact, he has an extraordinary romantic view of falling in love, which isn’t so typical in the actual lad on the street.
Alice Talbot-Judge, 31, a writer and blogger (and Ed Sheeran fan) from Milton Keynes, says: “I reckon his appeal is because he sings so much about the ordinary sides of life, and has a really romantic view of falling in love. Blokes aren’t normally that idealistic which is why I think he touches so many teenage girls, lusting over being in love.”
A social animal
One thing that Ed's had down from the start is social media. Remember those 18 million Twitter followers I mentioned? He’s got another 9.2 million on Instagram. He teased his latest album release (after a year’s social media silence) by posting a blue background on his Twitter account. His fans lost it.
As we all know, social media has replaced magazines and Saturday morning shows for our star-hungry teenagers. And so for big record companies looking to cash in on the teenage pound, it's the marketing method of choice. Ed (or his team) knows how easily fans can be reeled in with a few ‘candid’ pictures, some heartfelt admissions, and a few jokey asides with fans. And this has power. Thanks to social media, celebrities are more accessible than ever – which makes them more ‘obtainable’ – see above.
Social media has been a major part of Ed’s plan for world domination. His website is currently encouraging fans to send in artwork based on their favorite lyrics from the new album – with the all-important hashtag #dividelyrics. The best are published on Ed’s site itself. It's all a way of getting fans to interact, or 'engage' with Ed and his brand – in return, they get to feel part of something.
For business people and marketers this social media engagement is like the new gold. If it all goes to plan for Ed, fans who interact will become fans who spend money on downloads, merchandise and tickets and hey presto – that ‘new gold’ will turn into actual real gold.
Which brings us on to how family-friendly Ed’s music is. How many acts in recent times could actually please all generations of a family at once, without at least one of them breaking out in an all-body blush?
As one ‘older’ fan, Jayne Dowle, 49, from Barnsley, puts it: “It’s the music of choice in our house. My partner, bit of a muso, likes the song writing and guitar. My son, 14, likes the beats. My 11-year-old-daughter who’s an aspiring singer, likes the voice, and I like the Irish bits. It’s definitely the only car music we all agree on.” Having multi-generational appeal like this is pretty spectacular when you think about it. And pretty lucrative.
Ed’s record label (who are the people really cashing in on all this) totally agrees that this is part of his appeal. Craig Kallman, Chairman & CEO and Julie Greenwald, Chairman & COO, Atlantic Records (Ed’s current label) say: “Ed is that rarest of artists whose songs cut across boundaries of age, culture, and nationality. He writes music that is deeply personal and at the same time completely universal. In six short years, Ed has become a superstar by simply being himself – an amazing, down-to-earth human being who is an out-of-this-world musician, songwriter, and performer.”
At the time of writing, Ed is one of the most famous faces in the world. He could literally release an MP3 of himself snoring and it would probably go double-platinum overnight. He’s won multiple awards and been nominated for loads more. But he’s still happy to get his guitar out and have a sing-a-long (take his video about his love of peri-peri chicken above, for example) He doesn’t mind dressing as a retail worker for promo purposes. And he doesn't seem to have the normal pop star ego. He isn’t (as far as we know) nose deep in coke and models. And that wholesomeness just makes him one of us. And don’t we just love a ‘normal’ kid who’s done good?
So while Ed might not seem like he has the 'X-factor' on paper – he’s pale, he wears glasses, he’d never make it as a Calvin Klein model – to his fans he's got it all. And that's paid off.