HITS Daily Double


Everyone in the industry is talking about AI, but nobody—not even the ones who understand what it is—knows the ramifications for the biz. There are known unknowns, such as the potential havoc to be wrought on copyrights by “impostor” tracks, but also unknown unknowns (in the infamous words of Donald Rumsfeld). Nobody really expects the music biz to come up with the answers on its own, but some of its key partners—like industry-spanning technology giants Google, Apple and Amazon—likely will. Several signs hoisted by WGA picketers indicate that TV and film content creators don’t believe studios will be able resist the cost and time savings of AI-generated scripts. That’s just one of several grievances and concerns, of course, but the looming presence of this seductive (and reductive) tool must be addressed. And that’ll be a pretty tall order until it’s understood.

DOING THE MATH: Ed Sheeran had three giant songs—“Shape of You,” “Perfect” and “Thinking Out Loud”—that have amassed more than 8 billion streams, and he held all manner of Spotify records for a few years at the height of his streaming prowess. Sheeran has racked up a staggering 95b worldwide career streams and 67m in album equivalents. With nearly 3.5m global Spotify streams, “Shape” is the second-biggest track of all time (behind The Weeknd’s “Blinding Lights”) on the biggest DSP.

When he played his new album acoustically in a “secret” NYC session back in January, Sheeran said he’d recorded tons of other songs and that there might be another album coming during the tour. He might have led with the more intimate material and held back the hits.

His last “real” album (not counting deluxe and remix sets), 2021’s =, didn’t produce any singles as big as his top hits, either at DSPs or radio. Now that his latest project, -, has been released, his U.S. activity seems to be trending further downward. For comparison’s sake, his U.S. ATD in 2014 (for album x) was 7.4m; in 2017 he did 5.8m (÷) and in 2021 he was down to 2m (=).

With his current project he has no tracks on the Spotify global Top 50 or Apple Music charts. Is he the first major streaming juggernaut of the new ecosystem to run out of gas, or is he taking a page from the Taylor Swift playbook? Tay’s streaming was, comparatively, very soft, you’ll recall, when she released more introspective albums during the pandemic.

The example of Taylor is instructive; she came back with a vengeance. Her first big hit in some time, “Anti-Hero” (835m+ at Spotify), looks like it will be her first song to hit a billion Spotify streams since “Blank Space” from her giant 1989 album, which dropped in 2014 and has racked up nearly 12m ATD U.S. Though her numbers dipped a while back, she’s up to 4.5m ATD U.S. on her most recent set, Midnights, which was just released in November and continues to move 50k per week. Taylor’s masterful manipulation of her adoring fan base has spurred millions in multi-covered album sales and moved a mind-boggling number of tickets for her Eras Tour, which could earn her north of $1b, according to some estimates.

Sheeran’s ticket sales remain gargantuan. Does he still have his fastball? Can he refuel the tank and return with another album full of chart-toppers? Sheeran was Spotify’s #6 top-streaming artist of 2022 and that year’s #1 U.K. artist. He also has the fourth-biggest streaming album of ’22 globally with =. Recent history shows that it’s best to proceed gingerly before underestimating Mr. Sheeran.