Meet The Creative Team Behind Ed Sheeran's Record-Breaking TikTok Livestream

Ed Sheeran
Zakary Walters

Ed Sheeran

The 5.5 million viewers tops the 4 million who tuned into Justin Bieber's stream in February

LONDON – The long list of records that Ed Sheeran has smashed throughout his career continues to grow.

More than 5.5. million unique viewers watched the singer’s TikTok livestream last Friday (June 25) and the two replays the following day. That makes it the biggest-ever live music performance on TikTok, says the platform, surpassing the 4 million people who tuned in for Justin Bieber’s Valentine's Day TikTok livestream in February.

Sheeran’s global livestream was filmed in the U.K. at a spectator-free Portman Road soccer field -- home to the singer’s favorite team, Ipswich Town Football Club -- and was conceived and filmed specifically for the TikTok audience. It incorporated special effects, augmented reality and other prominent TikTok creators like Jeremy Lynch, Nathan Ramsay and Leticia Stock.

The 12-song, hour-long show also marked the live premiere of Sheeran’s new single, “Bad Habits,” which TikTok previewed exclusively the week before, and it has inspired more than 400,000 fan videos to date, the platform says.

Following the gig, Billboard spoke with Paul Hourican, TikTok’s U.K. head of music operations, Ed Howard, co-president of Atlantic Records U.K., and Emil Nava, an award-winning music video director. The three worked alongside director Hamish Hamilton on creating the record-breaking livestream. “We’ve really taken livestreaming vertical,” says Hourican, "and we've taken it to another level."

Billboard: When did conversations about this project first take place and what were your aims going into it?

Ed Howard: TikTok approached us earlier in the year and we loved the idea. The timing was perfect. Ed’s a football fan and he’s recently done a shirt sponsorship deal with Ipswich Town. There were so many things to like about it. [Ed Sheeran] played his last live shows in Ipswich two years ago and it’s going to be a while until anybody can see him really do that again. So, this was an opportunity for fans to see something they have been starved of for a long time. And also, to open it up to a whole new audience.

Paul Hourican: TikTok is native vertical app, so we wanted to make something that really maximized the space. So how do you capture all the grandeur, bells and whistles and excitement of a live show, but do it in vertical? We were really keen to present Ed and present the show in way where there's a familiarity to it for the TikTok community. But an incredible spectacle as well.

Emil Nava: The biggest thing we didn’t want to do was just make a [traditional] live show. The biggest challenge for all of us, including me, was understanding that we were creating in a totally new format.

BB: This was a show designed specifically for TikTok users. How did that shape and influence the production?

Emil Nava: We definitely came at it with a completely different TikTok point-of-view. The 9:16 [aspect ratio] framing of the phone is the biggest thing. Ed does big stadium shows, so it was about how do we create an intimate, yet epic platform for Ed’s performance? How can we give the audience these massive wow moments, but also take them all the way down to Ed sitting in the stands with just his guitar performing to you as if he was on a one-way Facetime or Zoom?

Zakary Walters
Ed Sheeran

Paul Hourican: This was an opportunity to educate Emil and Hamish on what the grammar of TikTok is and what the references are that the community will understand, such as the way that the camera swipes as opposed to cutting. When do we split the screen and when do we have intimacy with Ed? From there, Hamish and Emil just really ran with it. Emil had the crazy idea of having all these phones on the stage, so Ed could speak directly to the audience. They really just ran with it and created something awesome. We also spent a lot of time and effort bringing in some ground-breaking augmented reality that you have never seen before, particularly in a stadium environment.

Ed Howard: There’s no other artist in the world that could do that show the way that Ed did with all the different settings and changing from [full] band to solo; from being on the stage to being in the stands. It was really playing to his strengths. He really bought into all the fun that can be had on TikTok.

BB: Can you envisage elements of this show being incorporated into regular live gigs when touring resumes?

Paul Hourican: That’s going to be the really fun creative challenge for the next one. How do you maintain the intimacy of what is vertical video, but also continue to capture the excitement of a live audience?

Ed Howard: There’s loads of things about the show that I can see being applied to traditional or hybrid concerts. I think in the future, you’re going to be at a stadium show — as we were at Portman Road — seeing [Augmented Reality] and having a secondary or supplementary experience on your phone, while also watching what’s going on in the stadium. These are just additional layers that could be well be incorporated into stadium shows and concerts going forward.

BB: What were your personal highlights from the concert?

Emil Nava: I’ve always been a fan of “You Need Me, I Don’t Need You.” It was mine and Ed’s first ever video together and it was the beginning of our friendship and career. It was also the song that ended this show and Ed’s performance was just unreal. He grabs the camera phone during it and he’s literally performing to the audience down the phone. For me, that was an amazing moment.