Why Ed Sheeran’s success is bad for the music industry

I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not in the music industry, but I have spent many years following it and listening to tracks from all different types of genres and styles. So I’m a music fan and I care about the direction that the music industry goes because it will affect the types of tracks that come out that I like. I’ll also preface this by saying that up to this point, I have been interested in Ed Sheeran’s music and am still a fan of him personally, I thought he started out strong with meaningful lyrics and showed an artist with an interesting combination of rap/street vibe and appeal to those who want sweet, meaningful songs. So to both bases. He continued this in his x era, with some modern-sounding upbeat songs, coupled with the ballads. Yet what I’ve heard from his latest, he’s not balancing things so well, heading more to those who will zone out to Snow Patrol in the car as the extent of their music fandom and I’m not that interested in latching on to an artist that everyone else is. A bit hipster but it’s how I work with music, I like to attach it to my identity, I’ve heard what he has to offer before, it’s alright but it’s not amazing and I only want amazing music to really be a fan over. But this is why I’m prefacing it, because it’s not necessarily about the musical quality this time, I’m sure there are some good tracks on his album that I haven’t heard. Even though it’s the least interested that I’ve been in the music.

It’s more that this situation, where Ed Sheeran, one artist, takes up alone most of the high spots on the UK chart is going to be hailed by the media at large as an incredible accomplishment for an artist at the height of his career. They will fail to deliver the message that this is actually a problem for the music industry. It’s great for him and his record label certainly, he’s breaking records like never before. Yet they’ll conveniently ignore that for the artists that came before him, it wasn’t impossible to break records in this way due to the adoption of streaming services as the majority measuring stick by which charts are measured. They’ll talk him up as a legend, even though, with all due respect to Mr Sheeran, his musical talent is objectively not at the genius level musical legends in the past have attained, it is just wide-appealing on all bases, nothing more, nothing less. Certainly an accomplishment but not one that should put him next to Bowie or the Beatles as a musical legend of our time. They will celebrate that this got people interested in the charts at a level certainly not seen for a few years, but fail to recognise that it was the unusual and farcical nature of this accomplishment that got people’s attention in the first place and if this becomes a regular thing, the charts will be completely disregarded even more so than they already are.

The unfortunate thing is that this is an accurate way to measure people consuming music and people misunderstand this as the purpose of the charts. Has Ed Sheeran’s Divide album been the most popular album and set of tracks in the UK over the past 7 days? Absolutely, and it deserves its position at the top for that. Are people engaging with several of the tracks from this album? Certainly they are. Some of them. See, the problem with Spotify and other services being a measuring stick is that too many people listen passively, will play a whole playlist through and all those plays, the songs they love on that playlist and the songs they merely think are okay background noise, will count towards the charts. Now, there’s no way to objectively measure how engaged a listener is but those less engaged listeners will gravitate towards industry-designed playlists and fulfil the record label’s wishes of getting their most invested artists the listens they expect them to. It’s a cold, business model and the quality of the music has little to no bearing because the playlists will get the plays no matter what. And this hurts the music industry.

All industries in entertainment must survive by the best quality product being the most successful, or future creators of entertainment will not strive to make sure that theirs is also the best. What is popular must also not always go the way the big industry experts plan, for one of the beauties of entertainment must be that the people make an informed personal choice about what they choose to make popular, because they like it. That’s basic. The problem with Ed’s album taking up a large majority of the singles chart this week, and the possibility that popular albums taking up multiple spaces in the singles chart could be a regular occurrence, is that this obscures new musical stars from getting their dues at the top of the charts, it plays into the hands of the record labels owning the current biggest stars and ensures that the list of names at the top of the charts remains stagnant. Ed Sheeran came into the music industry in 2011. Name a huge musical name who has come in since. Drake started in 2009, Bieber in 2010, Adele in 2008. The Chainsmokers are more recent, true, but no one is attached to a dance act’s name power, they just take what songs they hear in the club. There have been far less debutants than there have been for a long time getting a shot at the top end of the charts and because of the way that streaming rewards background, ‘nice’, tracks, any new people will want to emulate one of the sounds of those that are already popular. There is limited risk, there is limited variability in the sound that is pervading the top of the chart, and we are heading our way to a very stagnant and dull period of music, purely because of the way that the charts work. I would normally say at this point that it’s okay, there is still good music in the underground, except that’s seeming less and less true as each day goes by, each year I find less and less worth talking about and I blame what has been going on at the top for this. Divide has definitely divided opinion, but it hasn’t divided the music industry into competing against it, and that is the huge problem.

Essentially the music industry needs to find a method to incorporate streaming but also allow for much greater fluidity in the chart or it risks total  collapse in innovation as well as its profits. I don’t think I’m indulging in hyperbole either.

(aside: as I’ve written this, Steps have replaced Ed Sheeran at #1 on iTunes in the UK (not necessarily meaning much unless they also have stream numbers but go them). This is a much better start, an act who we all thought was out of the game coming back in with a strong return. Not quite as good as a brand new genre-bending act but it’s a start.)


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