How Ed Sheeran conquered Oz
NOVEMBER 2011. A 19 year old British singer-songwriter called Ed Sheeran has come to Australia to promote his debut album + (or 'Plus').
The record had just been released that September. His breakthrough hit The A Team, a ballad about class A drug use and prostitution, was an unlikely commercial radio hit and debuted on the ARIA chart at No. 32 on October 23 2011, eventually reaching No. 2 and selling over 420,000 copies.
+ entered the Australian chart at No. 41 on October 31 2011, on the back of hype around Sheeran's talents and nicely setting up his first promotional trip with the musician a major priority for his record label Warner.
They'd won a bidding war to sign him on the back of his independently released EPs and a growing fanbase in the UK, both in real life and online.
While he'd been to Australia as a teenager (where he discovered Missy Higgins' The Sound of White who was also his first teenage crush) Sheeran's first official Melbourne performance was at Collingwood's Bakehouse Studios. It's essentially a rehearsal space that has been used by everyone from Nick Cave to Olivia Newton-John, Beck to Jessica Mauboy, Tool to Gotye.
Sheeran's performance there was an invite-only gig for a few dozen local media, all seated around tables.
He'd play songs from his album including future hits Lego House, Small Bump and Show Me Love (which stretched for ten minutes and included a crowd singalong) as well as album cut Kiss Me and obviously The A Team - which he sang standing on a table in the middle of the small room, constantly turning around as if he was playing in the round.
He also did an acapella cover of Wayfaring Stranger, a US folk song he'd discovered not through the Johnny Cash but the Jamie Woon version.
In his pre-tattoo days a clean-skinned Sheeran was already in his now standard uniform of cargo shorts and T-shirt. He also had an early version of the one-man-band loop pedal that is now so sophisticated it can entertain a stadium.
Several professionally filmed songs from the show are on You Tube, as well as plenty caught on mobiles.
Paul Cashmere of music website Noise 11 remembers the Bakehouse show well.
"The incredible thing about the first time Ed Sheeran ever performed in Melbourne was that "the show" he did for a few dozen people is still the same he's doing for 50000," Cashmere said.
"As Ed's popularity grew, the essence of why fans were attracted to him in the first place has remained the same. He is and always has been a one-man band and he knows how to "work the room" no matter what the size. The show at Bakehouse was seated around tables. Ed came out into the middle of the room then climbed up and performed on a table. Even then he drew himself into the audience and that is the magic of his show today."
Frontier's Michael Gudinski was also at the Bakehouse show - he and Sheeran became fast friends and Frontier have promoted each of his Australian tours.
"From that first time I saw him at the Bakehouse playing on his own, there was something special about him," Gudinski says. "I'd be bullshitting if I said I had the vision of his career becoming what it's become. But this kid's not talented, he's gifted."
Sheeran's first public show in Melbourne was August 3 2012 at the Palais Theatre in St Kilda - the same month + finally reached No. 1 on the ARIA chart. The all ages show sold out instantly, playing to nearly 2500 fans.
He played nearly every track from his debut album, as well as Wayfaring Stranger and Nina Simone's Be My Husband.
"Australia was the first market outside of the UK he really cracked," Gudinski said. "He really committed to touring here because he genuinely loved his time here."
By 2013, Sheeran's popularity meant he wound up playing Festival Hall three times - March 4, 5 and 6 - a second victory lap of Australia still promoting his first album.
The setlist was essentially the same with a few changes - deluxe edition track Gold Rush (written with his mate Amy Wadge, who he'd later write Thinking Out Loud with) was aired as well as another traditional folk track, The Parting Glass.
"The early tours were very screamy girly," Gudinski says. "It's a very unique situation that because of the depth and variety of his songwriting and his unique performance capacity that's changed. He's expanded his audience so widely, people have connected with his incredible songs and his incredible voice."
Sheeran returned to Australia in April 2014 to promote his single Sing from second album x (or Multiply, the man loves his math) which was released in June 2014.
He sang Sing at the Logies at Crown Casino on April 26 and then embarked on three shows in one day on April 28.
It started at the house of fan Shiralee Dennis in Oakleigh South playing, literally, to seven people and a dog named Sienna. Dennis won the competition on the Today show.
The setlist included Sing, Take It Back and Little Bear - a request from Dennis.
At lunch he played the recently-closed Ding Dong lounge to around 200 media members and competition winners, airing new songs Don't, I See Fire, Take It Back and Sing as well as The A Team and Give Me Love.
That night he played Ormond Hall in Prahran, adding one extra song, early rap-fuelled single You Need Me, I Don't Need You and playing to around 700 competition winners.
Sheeran made another flying visit to Australia in September 2014, playing Thinking Out Loud and Don't on The X Factor and joining Tom Jones as AFL Grand Final entertainment - another Gudinski masterstroke.
They duetted on Jones' Prince cover Kiss with Sheeran also playing Lego House, Give Me Love, Sing, a self-censored version of Don't, I'm a Mess and Thinking Out Loud as well as The A Team.
That was a taster for the x tour, which would launch him into superstar status in Australia.
By the time he toured in March 2015 x had already become the highest-selling album in Australia for 2014 and spawned two No. 1s - Sing and Thinking Out Loud (the latter selling over 630,000 copies) and two Top 10s in Don't and Bloodstream.
His first Rod Laver Arena show on March 28 sold out straight away, with two more added - March 29 and 30 - selling around 45,000 tickets.
His guests were Jamie Lawson, the UK act he'd signed to his new record label, and Australian label mate Conrad Sewell.
The setlist was 60-per-cent x, 40-per-cent + and a handful of covers and medleys including Nina Simone's Feeling Good, Iggy Azalea's Fancy, Blackstreet's No Diggity and Stevie Wonder's Superstition.
He was the first male artist since John Denver to play arenas in Australia as a solo act, with no backing band.
Remarkably, all tickets were $99, with Sheeran refusing the lucrative option of VIP pricing or paid meet and greets.
"He's come from that Springsteen/Grohl school of really caring about his fans," Gudinski said. "I've seen this from the start. There's no way he'd charge for VIP tickets or make people pay for meet and greets. The greatest artists I've worked with are true fans of music himself, and he's definitely one of those.
"He lives and breathes music constantly. He's always got his headphones on listening to all different types of music, writing for all different types of artists, as well as for himself."
Even more remarkably, the demand for tickets saw Frontier add a return tour for the end of the same year. Sheeran upgraded venue sizes, playing to over 30,000 fans a night over two shows at AAMI Park - December 5 and 6 with Rudimental, Passenger and Foy Vance as opening acts.
This one-upped the late Denver in being the first person in Australian touring history to play stadium shows solo - although Denver's show was more traditional acoustic guitar.
"People didn't think Ed could do a stadium solo, then he pulled off Wembley," Gudinski said.
The December setlist remained virtually the same, bar covers of Can't Help Falling in Love With You and Ain't No Sunshine.
The Australian shows were the end of Sheeran's global touring for x. He spoke about being so burnt out from the travel - and partying - that it lead to him announcing his extended break.
That break included a holiday to Australia and staying at Gudinski's Melbourne house.
The hiatus with the release of singles Shape of You and Castle on the Hill in early January 2017.
Sheeran arrived in Australia in early February last year to set up the release of his third album ÷ (or Divide).
That led to his most scenic Victorian backdrop - a show literally on Hanging Rock in Mount Macedon for a radio promotion.
Less than 100 people were actually allowed on the rock to watch him perform, and heavy rain unfortunately put a literal dampener on the filming with drones and hi-tech cameras which had been planned.
"When we did the show at Hanging Rock Ed said 'How come I can't play down on the paddock' and I said 'I think you're a bit too big for that at the moment'," Gudinski laughed. "He loves it out here. He says he'd love to come and live here for a few years but with his schedule and the way things are going that will be a long way off."
This year Sheeran will play his biggest Australian venues (bar that short set at the MCG for the Grand Final).
"A lot of people think it's a really small show because it's just him on stage. There's over 50 people travelling with him," Gudinski said.
"Unlike a lot of artists, he's bought the stadium production he'll use overseas here. The stage has the most incredible video set up."
Sheeran will play Suncorp Stadium two nights in a row, and after leaving Australia and New Zealand starts on a second round of ÷ touring upsizes to stadiums in the rest of the world.
He is the only act to play Etihad Stadium four times on the one tour and the ÷ tour is now the most successful tour in Australian and New Zealand history, selling over 1 million tickets.
That bypasses Adele last year and breaks the record that had been held by Dire Straits since 1986.
Dire Straits, riding on the back of the Brothers in Arms album, started the tour in Hobart on February 7 and kept adding shows until they played a final gig at Sydney Entertainment Centre on April 26, clocking up 54 shows.
Sheeran will play 17 stadium shows in Australia and New Zealand between starting in Perth last Friday and finishing in Dunedin on April 1.
Gudinski says this will be the only Australian tour for this album.
"There's no way we'll do two tours for this album in Australia, this is it. But he's so prolific it won't be five years waiting for a new album before he runs off to make movies or something, he's totally committed to music and totally focused on that. He's got his own label, he's already thinking about his next two albums. But I know for me as a promoter, this is phenomenal, selling one million tickets on a tour. I'll never top this in my lifetime."
Ed Sheeran, with Missy Higgins and Bliss N Eso, plays Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium March 20 and 21.
ED BY NUMBERS
AUSTRALIAN SINGLE SALES
Over 4.6 million
AUSTRALIAN ALBUM SALES
Over 1.5 million
ALL MELBOURNE TICKET SALES
Over 377,000 (250,000 for Etihad Stadium)