How Divide Tour Conquered: Ed Sheeran Broke U2's Record With 'Math and Marketing'

ISSUE 19 2019 - DO NOT REUSE
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Sheeran onstage in Helsinki on July 23.

On Aug. 2, Ed Sheeran's ÷ (Divide) tour became the top-grossing trek of all time, according to Billboard Boxscore. After over two years and 246 performances -- with nine left to go -- Sheeran has taken in $737.9 million, surpassing U2's 2011 record of $736.4 million.  

At the time, U2 was a touring juggernaut that had released 12 albums over three decades -- and it took the record from The Rolling Stones. How did Sheeran -- a 28-year-old solo artist with three albums and just one previous arena tour -- do it?

"A combination of math and marketing strategies," according to Patrick Ryan, co-founder of leading ticketing company Eventellect. "No artist has ever played in front of that many seats during one consecutive tour. So it was a matter of filling them." U2 sold a reported 7,272,046 tickets for 110 shows, while Sheeran sold 8,503,496 for more than twice as many concerts.

Sheeran did that partly by keeping new music coming after releasing the hit album ÷ (Divide), which has earned 4.7 million equivalent album units, according to Nielsen Music. "To fill stadiums like that, you need to capture the dollars of the casual fan," says Ryan.

Sometimes, that involved fewer dollars. Sheeran's ticket prices for arena shows averaged $83.50 in 2017. When he graduated from arenas to stadiums later in the tour, he barely raised prices: His international booking agent, Jon Ollier of Creative Artists Agency, says Sheeran kept tickets below $100, even in stadiums. "He's very democratic about the whole process," says North American agent Marty Diamond of Paradigm Talent Agency. (With his manager Stuart Camp and agents, Sheeran also fought scalpers, in some cases canceling bot-purchased tickets en masse.) By comparison, stadium concert tickets averaged $116 per ticket (Beyoncé and Jay-Z) to $156 per ticket (the Stones).  

But stadium shows often involve between three and five times as many concert-goers as an arena can hold. And while only a few artists have enough draw to fill those venues, the economics are enviable, since in many cases they eliminate the need to play secondary markets or multiple nights in the same city. Sheeran wasn't so interested in efficiency: He played 93 stadium shows in 2018, nearly double the number of dates played by Taylor Swift (53) and Beyoncé and Jay-Z (48). That schedule made a difference in the final gross. He also played in new markets, including two cities in South Africa and more in Asia and South America.

At least one person may not be surprised by Sheeran's success. Diamond recalls sitting with him in April 2012 on the steps of the 1,200-capacity 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C., after he had opened for Snow Patrol and hearing him ask, "When do you think we're going to play Madison Square Garden?" Before the end of the year, Sheeran had sold out Terminal 5 in New York -- then, in 2013, Radio City Music Hall. Last year, he sold out two shows at the 50,000-capacity MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. It's hard to envision what could come next. But as Diamond says, "Ed always has his eye on the prize."

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 10 issue of Billboard.


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