The Billboard Cover Story: 24 Hours in the Life of Music Starring Ed Sheeran, The Artist

Here's how shit REALLY gets done in today's snooze-you-lose music biz.

9:00 a.m.

Ed Sheeran arrives at SiriusXM

Ask Ed Sheeran how he's doing, ­especially in the first half of the day, and you're likely to get some variation on the same response. "Tired, man," he says with a weary laugh as he rolls into SiriusXM Satellite Radio's Manhattan HQ to kick off an extremely packed day of promos and performances all over the city. It's hard to blame him. At just 24, armed with little more than an acoustic guitar, a closet full of flannel shirts and a head of hair so red it's basically safety orange, the British singer-songwriter has come to rival his music-biz bestie, Taylor Swift, for global music ­domination. "It's quite a weird thing for the No. 1 and No. 2 biggest-selling artists in the world to be close friends," Sheeran says later, matter-of-factly. "I don't think that happens a lot."

This morning there are at least two specific reasons for his weariness. First, he hasn't had coffee yet, so he waits in a greenroom while Kev, his affable, bear-sized sidekick/security guard, makes a Starbucks run. And second, even though he stayed in last night, Sheeran was up way later than he planned -- having what he jokingly describes as a solo "Netflix and chill" night -- watching the Amy Winehouse documentary in his pool-table-equipped hotel suite. He paired the experience with two bottles of his buddy Jay Z's Armand de Brignac champagne, a case of which Beyoncé sent over after the pair dueted flirtatiously on "Drunk in Love" at the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park three days earlier. (She signed the card "A gangster's wife.")

It has been an almost unbelievable rise, from busking in his English hometown of Suffolk to getting gifts from Jay and Bey. His parents, art dealer dad John and jewelry designer mom Imogen, still live in Suffolk, and Sheeran recently bought a house nearby. (His older brother Matthew is also a musician; he composes classical music.) Now Sheeran is in town for a few days following the last stop on the U.S. leg of his blockbuster X Tour: a sold-out show at the 80,000-seat Gillette Stadium, outside Boston. Let that sink in. One smallish man, alone onstage in venues normally occupied by such franchises as the New England Patriots, generating Beatlemania-esque pandemonium along the way.

That's what Kev is for. Sheeran finally realized the need for security after a tour stop in the Philippines. "We got off the plane in Manila, and there were like 500 people there waiting," says Sheeran. "And that was just the airport. When we got to the actual fans, it was very, very intense."

He's at SiriusXM today to give a little of that shine to Jamie Lawson, a 39-year-old singer-songwriter friend from Sheeran's club days who's the first signing to his new Gingerbread Man label. "Without sounding weird, I don't need the money," Sheeran says of the venture. "It's just me wanting to hear some cool music on the radio." To that end, the pair blitz through three of SiriusXM's studios; pose for ­photos; tape a quick performance of Lawson's heartstring-yanking single "Wasn't Expecting That," which, a few days later, would hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom; cross paths with Ellen Page (neither star acknowledges the other); and, finally, make a quick dash through the midmorning sunshine, past a group of paparazzi, into a pair of waiting vans.

11:00 a.m.

LOL @ Buzzfeed 

Lawson and Sheeran leave autographs at the media company during the day's second promo stop. 

11:45 a.m.

Sheeran schmoozes Spotify

Following a second promo stop at Buzzfeed, Sheeran takes advantage of some ­downtime to recharge with a nap in the back of the van. An hour later, ­somewhat perked up, he appears onstage at Rockwood Music Hall, a small downtown club, to introduce Lawson, who's playing a private afternoon showcase for Spotify. Sheeran sticks around afterward to take photos with the ­beaming members of the streaming service's staff. He is friendly and ­unpretentious, but it's clear that this kind of day, packed with ­strangers in need of glad-handing, doesn't come naturally to him. With each photo, his face instantly snaps into a pleasant, if slightly ­lobotomized, smile. "It's funny -- my ex-girlfriend, who the whole first album is about, was like, 'I can tell when you're not happy in pictures, because you do this fake smile,' " says Sheeran with a flash of his genuine smile. "If you can see my teeth, I'm happy."

The showcase also is telling in another way. Sheeran is one of the first superstars whose career has entirely existed in the streaming era. In 2014 he was the most-streamed act on the planet, and it's clear that the relationship with Spotify is important to him. "If my album is streamed by 2 billion people, which it was, you have maybe a billion that might check it out online, and maybe 300,000 of those people who might buy a ticket at 80 dollars a pop. That's more money than you would ever make off streaming or album sales." (That said, Sheeran also sells a lot of records. X is on its way to moving 12 million copies globally, which, he proudly notes, is about what U2 sold with The Joshua Tree.)

Despite his youth and digital ­evangelism, in some ways Sheeran is weirdly old-­fashioned. "I don't stream anything ever," he says. "I don't even really get it. I buy ­everything off iTunes or physically." Which also explains how there's lots of celebrated music that he still hasn't ­encountered. "I've never listened to a Radiohead album, to be honest. I didn't hear a Bruce Springsteen song until like two years ago, and now I f---ing love Springsteen. I didn't hear Michael Jackson songs till I was 14. I like ­discovering things on my own. I want to have that moment of 'holy shit,' the moment of the epiphany."

2:15 p.m.

More schmoozing, in an H&M store window

Sheeran and Lawson are taping an ­interview for the TV show Extra in what turns out to be a studio built into a ­window of a vast H&M store in Times Square. "Everything is surreal when you're with Ed," Lawson says dryly. So as not to cause ­pandemonium in the crowded store, Sheeran hides out before the segment in a closed-off section of dressing rooms, ­reflecting on the difference between his entourage (Kev, his road manager Mark, a few label people, Lawson's manager) and rappers' squads. "I haven't got a weed guy," he says with a laugh. "They always have a weed guy. A jewelry guy, too."

Sheeran is a major fan of hip-hop, and the feeling is mutual. He has appeared on the cover of Vibe, recorded an entire album with The Game that he still needs to tinker with and is tight with some of the biggest names in the genre -- including Pharrell Williams, who co-produced his smash "Sing," and Jay Z, who got to hear a track from Sheeran's third album during an ­intimate hang at Jay and Beyoncé's place after Global Citizen. "He made me play it four times in a row and called me an alien," says Sheeran. "That was promising."

He has been writing and recording the album (which, following the pattern of his first two math-symbol-titled discs, will have either a subtraction or division mark) while on the road with Dr. Luke protege Benny Blanco, who joined the tour with a mobile studio. Their pace is prodigious. "We'll do one song at ­midday, one song at 5 p.m. and then one song after the show, usually," he says. "If I didn't have Benny forcing me to write a song, or three songs, a day, I'd just watch DVDs. But because he's there and paid money for his tour bus and taken time out of his schedule -- he could be working with f---ing Rihanna or whoever! -- you feel obliged. So it proves really beneficial."

According to Sheeran, his label, Atlantic, would prefer the album to come out next September, before the Grammy cutoff, but he's not sure if it wouldn't be better to wait a month. "Adele is releasing her album in the same Grammy category," he says with a little awed laugh. "I don't know if I'm brave enough to go up against her." In the run-up to the release, though, he has a seriously packed year. First up is Jumpers for Goalposts, a concert film documenting his three-night run at Wembley Stadium -- an experience Sheeran immortalized, in a nod to the English national football team's logo, with the giant lion tattoo that covers his chest. In January he'll return to New York for ­sessions with Blanco. Then he hopes to travel in a way that doesn't seem possible for one of the planet's ­biggest stars: visiting places like Ghana and Kenya and South Africa by himself, without "a proper phone," ­moving so light and fast that fans and the press can't keep up. "I'll go to places for, like, an afternoon or an evening. By the time they realize I'm there, I'm already gone."

3:20 p.m.

Sheeran Hits H&M

After taping an interview for the TV show Extra, in what turned out to be a studio built into a window of a vast Times Square store, the singer wanders with a bag.

3:50 p.m. 

Sheeran Stops by Atlantic

He adds the "Thinking Out Loud" lyric "People fall in love in mysterious ways/Maybe just a touch of the hand" to a mural of classic lines by label artists.

5:45 p.m. 

Sheeran Signs Autographs

 After the performer taped an appearance on Charlie Rose -- in which he discussed touring, music and songwriting -- Sheeran accommodated fans backstage at the PBS talk show.

9:15 p.m.

Jumping onstage with Rudimental

The main room at the historic New York club Webster Hall is fully rocking with the drum'n'bass sound of Rudimental - ­buddies of Sheeran's and collaborators on two tracks: the X hit "Bloodstream" (about an MDMA experience Sheeran had in Ibiza) and the new "Lay It on Me," which is racing up the charts. There's intense buzz among the fans that Sheeran might make an appearance, and two-thirds of the way through their set, he emerges from an incense-scented VIP ­bathroom, heads down a flight of stairs and explodes onto the stage. The 1,500-strong crowd elevates as one. For Sheeran, who normally ­performs alone, the experience of having a large band behind him is a rush. "I liken [Rudimental] to a carnival," he says. "Not your kind of carnival, but like Notting Hill Carnival, sound systems. Wherever they go they bring the ­carnival with them."

Atlantic Records Group chairman/COO Julie Greenwald (who had Lawson play a party at her apartment the night before) is in the house with at least a dozen staffers - a sign of Sheeran's importance to the label. One of the day's stops was a visit to the label's new headquarters, where Sheeran spotted a huge mural of founder Ahmet Ertegun composed out of classic lyrics by Atlantic artists. Noticing that he wasn't ­represented, Sheeran crouched down with a marker and added the "Thinking Out Loud" lyric, "People fall in love in mysterious ways/Maybe just a touch of the hand," in small neat letters. Partly because Sheeran's lyrics nearly all mine his own experiences, his love life is a topic intensely scrutinized by fans, to the point that the otherwise relatively unfiltered star will only talk about it in the most vague ­generalities. Asked if he's seeing anyone now, he seems about to answer, then says, "I just never want to be public. It always, always backfires. I really wish I could disappear at moments that I'm with a significant other. It's none of anyone's f---ing business."

12:32 a.m.

A few drinks with friends

After the show, Sheeran invites the whole crew over to the Houndstooth, a favorite New York pub that ­happens to be owned by the band Snow Patrol. (The band's guitarist-songwriter Johnny McDaid is a longtime ­collaborator of Sheeran's.) "Whenever I'm in town they let me have the basement," says Sheeran.

Sheeran cherishes the rare ­opportunities to spend time with those close to him. A couple of days later, his parents will be ­coming to visit him in New York, and he already has made plans to meet them at the cult Brooklyn pizza spot Lucali, to which he was introduced by Beyoncé and Jay Z. In addition to his old school friends -- who make sport of his fame by wearing Sheeran masks at Glastonbury -- he also has a wide range of celebrity pals, from Courteney Cox to his mentor Elton John. And then, of course, there's Swift, who helped break Sheeran in America by bringing him on as a high-profile opening act in 2013. They speak or text nearly every day, but one wonders: Does Sheeran get invited to hang out with her famous girl squad? "Of course," he says, cracking up. "It's not a vaginas-only club."

Finally, 15 hours after he arrived at SiriusXM, Sheeran heads back to his hotel to crash. Tomorrow will be another insanely busy day. Because no matter how much he has ­accomplished, Ed Sheeran is nowhere near done. It's the reason his new movie is called Jumpers for Goalposts, which was also briefly in contention for the next album's title. "In England a 'sweater' is a 'jumper,' " explains Sheeran, "and when you play football you put your jumpers on the ground and use them as goalposts. I never started off saying, 'I want to play Wembley Stadium.' I said, 'I want to play Shepherd's Bush Empire,' which is like 1,500 capacity. After you play there, you move the goalposts and you play Brixton Academy, and when you've done that, you move them again. And again, and again. That's the whole ethos of the career."