On the back of the highest grossing tour of all time, there are few people better placed than Ed Sheeran to send a surge of optimism through the live music industry. Access talks to the team behind the star singer-songwriter’s huge 2022 stadium tour.

This article was published in the winter 20/21 edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here.

Ed Sheeran’s ÷ (Divide) world tour in 2017-2019 grossed a record-breaking $776.2 million (£582.76m) to surpass U2’s landmark 360° Tour. His 255 shows across 43 countries were collectively attended by no less than 8,796,500 fans, setting another new record.

In September this year, just two months after the UK Government gave the live events industry the green light to reopen at full capacity after 16 months of closure, Sheeran’s team announced a 2022 tour of huge venues in the UK, Ireland, Central Europe and Scandinavia.

Tickets for the + – = ÷ x Tour, otherwise known as the Mathematics Tour, went on sale on 25 September and sold so strongly that new stadium dates were swiftly added, including fourth and fifth dates at the 90,000-capacity Wembley Stadium, a second show at Belfast’s Boucher Road Playing Fields (cap. 42,000) and a third at Manchester’s Etihad Stadium (63,000).

In total, the UK leg of the 2022 tour alone will involve no less than 19 stadium dates. It will commence on 12 May in Belfast and close on 1 July with a Wembley Stadium gig. At a time when the industry is fighting to get back on its feet, with many considerable hurdles remaining, a tour of this magnitude is a hugely significant boost for the sector.

The A Team

The stadium shows in Wales and England are being co-promoted by Kilimanjaro Live and FKP Scorpio, which hired long-time Sheeran co-promoter Daniel Ealam, alongside Scott O’Neill, from DHP Family in September last year. Meanwhile, the two dates at Glasgow’s Hampden Park (58,000) are being promoted by Simon Jones at AEG Presents.

Like the majority of Sheeran’s core team, Ealam has worked with the Suffolk singer-songwriter from the early days. He first booked Sheeran to play a 700-capacity club show at Stealth in Nottingham in 2010.

Another key early gig for Sheeran and his Boss loop pedal was a show supporting Just Jack at the O2 Academy (2,300) in Leeds on 4 November the previous year. Stuart Camp was in the audience that night and soon after approached Sheeran to offer him a management deal. Just five days later, Sheeran’s performance at the O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire (2,000) in London convinced Jon Ollier(pictured below), then a booker at Free Trade Agency, that he should become the singer’s agent.

Also blown away by Sheeran’s performance at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire was Kilimanjaro Live’s Steve Tilley, who would soon become his UK promoter alongside Ealam. The promoters, agent and manager have worked with Sheeran ever since, with the artist continuing to demonstrate a loyalty all too rare in the industry.

“Working with Ed has not only been a hugely rewarding experience and allowed me to build a career, but his approach to others is something we can all learn from,” says Ollier. “What is often forgotten in this industry is that you don’t get the best out of people by bullying them. If you treat people right they will go the extra mile for you, and that’s what we have seen with Ed.”

Kilimanjaro Live CEO Stuart Galbraith adds, “The reason that Ed’s team have had such longevity and are all such a pleasure to work with stems from Ed himself. He is a fair person, very measured, and fiercely loyal.”

The Perfect Plan

A key development for Ollier during the pandemic was the launch of his London-based independent booking agency One Fiinix Live, which he founded in November last year just one month after leaving the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Aside from Sheeran, the agency’s acts include Anne-Marie, Lauv, 2Cellos and JC Stewart.

Sheeran’s agent says planning a project the size of the Mathematics Tour during a pandemic was not without its challenges, with people being furloughed and others not as “match fit” as usual. However, he says the project was an enormously welcome distraction from the drudgery of the pandemic lockdowns: “During the last 12 to 18 months, the tour has given everyone something very positive to focus on, it has given people energy. The impact of the project on mental health, my own mental health, has been considerable – to be able to work on something that is moving forward has been hugely important.”

While the pandemic left no stone unturned in terms of its impact on the events industry, the Mathematics Tour plan and timing was largely unaffected, according to Galbraith.

He says, “We did our last shows with Ed in August 2019, and it was always intended that he would then have time off after we finished the Divide world tour with four homecoming shows at Chantry Park [40,000] in Ipswich. By luck, judgement, or fortuitous timing, whatever you want to call it, Ed’s career has hardly missed a beat because of the pandemic as it was always the plan that he would have that time off from social media, writing, recording, releasing
and touring.”

The Mathematics Tour will support Sheeran’s = (Equals) album. Released on 29 October by Asylum/Atlantic, it outsold the rest of the Top 30 combined to become his fifth No. 1 album. By early November the album has been streamed more than a billion times on Spotify.

In June, with full-capacity audience live shows still banned, a livestream gig by Sheeran at Ipswich Town’s Portman Road stadium became the most viewed live music performance on TikTok with 5.5 million views. The build-up to the September Mathematics Tour on-sale went to plan but since the reopening of venues and events in July last year, operators have reported a higher number of no-shows than pre-pandemic. Aside from ticket holders not turning up, purchasing habits have shifted somewhat with some shows seeing fans holding off and buying tickets closer to the event. But, as you would expect from Sheeran’s team, the Mathematics Tour on-sale was timed for maximum impact.

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Says Ollier, “A lot of festivals last year blew out their tickets in record time because they went on sale soon after Boris Johnson made that good news announcement in March, the sun started to come out after winter and there was a lot of optimism. With Ed’s tour, we were sensitive to the market and announced the on-sale in September because people had just experienced events for the first time in a long time, and the winter hadn’t kicked in yet.”

AEG Presents senior vice president international touring Simon Jones is another long-time member of the Ed Sheeran team, having worked with him since 2011 Jones has promoted his shows in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Europe. On the forthcoming tour, Jones’ remit includes the two dates at Hampden Park in June.

The promoter says the first of the two Glasgow dates has sold out and the other is selling very well: “Ed has ridden the wave of the positive side of coming out of the back of the pandemic. The shows went on sale during a very positive period and the Glasgow dates have sold fantastically well.”

Jones says announcing such a large-scale stadium tour when the industry was emerging from the lengthy pandemic lockdown was a hugely positive step for everyone involved in the events ecosystem: “With so many people out of work for so long, having this tour announced helped breed a real sense of positivity across the industry.”

Ealam adds, “With Mathematics we were the first big stadium tour that went on sale after the reopening, so all eyes were on us. It was a big relief for everyone in the industry that people were buying tickets in those kind of numbers off the back of such a terrible year.”

Throughout Sheeran’s career he has defied expectations and set new landmarks, and so it is not surprising that if any act can generate huge ticket sales during a pandemic it would be him.

“Ed has really changed the way people think about what is possible in this industry,” says Ealam. “It was not the done thing to do arenas on a debut album tour, or to do stadiums on album two, but Ed did it. It all boils down to him being an incredible performer – Ed can command audiences in huge venues while performing alone on stage, it is incredible.”

Ollier says that it was necessary to consider rising inflation in some overseas territories on the tour but as a gesture to fans who have come through a pandemic ticket prices for the UK shows were frozen to remain the same as the Divide Tour.

Tackling touts

With the aim of protecting the fanbase from exploitation by nefarious, profiteering, mass ticket resale operators, Ed Sheeran and his team have had a long and very public battle with touts. Galbraith says that on the Divide Tour, some 80,000 tickets were cancelled and reissued to fans who were known to have been ripped off.

As a result, controversial secondary ticketer Viagogo took legal action against Galbraith and Kilimanjaro for what it described as “defrauding thousands of fans out of several million pounds” on the tour due to the cancellation of the resold tickets.

The court action was filed in Germany, where Kilimanjaro’s owner Deutsche Entertainment AG (DEAG) is based. Says Galbraith, “The case collapsed, they withdrew and we were awarded costs because we were ensuring customers were not ripped off. We took measures to identify the people who had brought the tickets and were profiteering.”

In 2018 the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) issued High Court proceedings against Viagogo over concerns it was breaking consumer protection law, and it is conducting an ongoing investigation into the secondary ticketing sector.

While the anti-tout measures during the Divide Tour meant attendees had to present a credit or debit card in order to collect their tickets at the venue gates, for next year’s shows Sheeran’s team has moved entirely to digital ticketing.

The promoters began working hand-in-hand with ticketing partners AXS, Eventim, Gigantic, See Tickets and Ticketmaster back in June to devise a scheme that would work across all the vendor’s systems and shut out touts.

“We found it refreshing that promoters were consulting us because quite often we are just dictated to,” says AXS UK director of ticketing Paul Newman. “It’s also been refreshing that all the ticket agents have been talking to each other because all our systems are different and we had to find different solutions to some of the things the promoters were looking for.”

See Tickets CEO Rob Wilmshurst says Sheeran’s team have been insistent, exacting and demanding and they should be: The artist wants tickets fairly priced and distributed and we are always willing and happy to lock-step and innovate where needed.

He says the new digital-only ticketing procedure requires buyers to download an app, with a PIN being sent closer to the date of the show to allow customers to access their tickets and gain access.

“We are using text messaging to maintain the link between the device and the tickets on the basis that it is less likely customers will sell a device,” says Wilmshurst.

Ealam says that with the pandemic having accelerated the industry-wide move to digital ticketing, Sheeran’s team “needed to be on top of that as early as possible.”

As another layer of protection, Reg Walker’s team at The Iridium Consultancy is closely examining ticket sales ledgers and any tickets found to be in breach of the terms and conditions are cancelled.

“This is about being as disruptive to the touts and as fair to fans as possible. I think we have achieved that,” says Newman.

Shape of view

Once safely inside the venues, without having been ripped off, Sheeran’s fans can expect to see what his team promise will be a “spectacular” production. Ollier and the promoters are remaining tight-lipped about the finer details of what it will involve but said the show will be presented in the round.

The production is being managed by Chris Marsh at Major Tom, while overseeing the design is production and lighting designer Mark Cunniffe – who has been working with the Ed Sheeran team and Marsh since 2010.

“We went down to Mark’s studio, in Dorset, and put on a VR headset and watched the show – it was absolutely mind blowing,” says Ealam. “I’ve not seen anything like it before, it’s definitely next level production. The great thing was that we could watch the show from any seat – it has been designed in such a way that literally there was not a seat in the stadium without an incredible view.”

Additional support

Responsible for site management at five of the UK stadiums on the tour will be Cardiff-based SC Productions, which will work to the promoter’s rider to ensure all requirements are taken care.

SC director Sarah Hemsley-Cole says, “We book all the local infrastructure, so the plant, cranes, cherry pickers, the furniture, extra catering resources, flooring – all of the component parts so that when the tour arrives at the venue everything they could wish for is prepped and good to go.”

Despite there being a shortage of crew, security personnel, and equipment across the industry, Hemsley-Cole is confident it won’t impact the tour: “Next summer is not going to be easy, there is a finite amount of equipment and staff available but we are well ahead of the game – we have got in early to get things organised.”

Calculated risk

Despite shifting levels of concern over new Covid-19 variants such as Omicron, and the Government’s Live Events Reinsurance Scheme widely considered unsuitable for huge outdoor live show projects such as the Mathematics Tour, Ed Sheeran’s team remain resolutely optimistic the tour will go ahead as planned.

“I believe that by the time we get to next summer any reticence or customer nervousness will have disappeared and we’ll see 90%-plus attendance at all shows,” says Galbraith.

Ollier says that while the tour is a very positive thing for the industry, it is uninsured: “There’s an element of risk attached but then promoting shows has always been a financial gamble.

“The tour is an incredibly high-profile thing that suggests, perhaps, that recovery is happening, and things are moving forward. We hope that it is going to be a really positive part of building back the business we love.”

This article was published in the winter 20/21 edition of Access All Areas. Read it here, and/or subscribe for free here.