Charting Ed Sheeran's rise from relative unknown to stadium sell-out

Ed Sheeran with Taylor Swift backstage before his

Ed Sheeran with Taylor Swift backstage before his sold-out show at Madison Square Garden Arena in Manhattan. (Nov. 1, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

In just two years, English singer Ed Sheeran has gone from the small stage to the big league.

The 22-year-old earned a gold album with his 2011 debut, "+," and his Top 20 hit, "The A Team," was nominated for song of the year at the Grammy Awards, but his biggest achievement came earlier this month: He performed three shows at Madison Square Garden.

Sheeran is part of a breed of newer and lesser known acts who are able to sell out top venues, even if they aren't pushing millions and millions of albums and singles like Eminem and Justin Timberlake, or dominating with chart-topping tracks and radio airplay like Katy Perry or Rihanna.

Pop-rock band Passion Pit, which released its sophomore album last year, sold out MSG earlier this year, and The Weeknd, the eerie, reclusive R&B singer, performed two sold-out nights at Radio City Music Hall to a feverish crowd last month. Gotye, though he had last year's biggest hit with "Somebody That I Used to Know" and a gold album, performed at the 9,000-seat Radio City after playing Manhattan's Terminal 5, with a third of that capacity, six months prior. And the English indie band the xx, critically acclaimed but fairly unknown outside the music industry, performed two shows at Radio City last month.

"We played the Mercury Lounge like a year and a half ago, and to go from like a 150-capacity venue to, I think it's 18,000 at MSG -- it's cool," said Sheeran.

For that, he might thank his fans on Twitter -- where Sheeran has more than 8 million followers -- and the support of Taylor Swift and One Direction, whom he opened for and collaborated with.

 

SKY'S THE LIMIT

"With social media playing an increasing role, it's possible for an artist to go from totally unknown to significant enough popularity to sell an arena like Madison Square Garden," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of concert trade magazine Pollstar. Omar Al-Joulani, Live Nation's vice president of touring, echoed Bongiovanni's theory.

"[It] definitely feels like artists can have a quicker run to selling out more venues, mostly because it's easier to get noticed these days because you can go straight to your fan base," he said. "Whether they have radio or not, [these artists] have very big online followings." AlJoulani added that while other emerging acts have sold out top venues in the past, "it just seems to be happening more often now."

Imagine Dragons and fun. -- whose mainstream breakthroughs are recent though they both formed in 2008 -- have gone from small theaters to top-billing venues in a year, aided by back-to-back hits and platinum-selling albums. Imagine Dragons, whose hits include "Radioactive" and "It's Time," will launch an arena tour in February that includes dates at the American Airlines Center in Texas and the Izod Center in East Rutherford, N.J.

Moderate ticket prices are another reason these musicians are able to sell out venues: Imagine Dragon's tickets won't price higher than $70 -- and that includes service and facility fees.

 

HELP FROM HIS FRIENDS

While singer-songwriter Sheeran is charting his own success, others have given him a boost: He was the opening act on the North American leg of Swift's massive "Red" tour and collaborated with the country-pop star on the recent Top-40 hit "Everything Has Changed." Sheeran also co-wrote songs on both of One Direction's albums and has hit the road with the boy band.

Sheeran's most expensive Garden ticket was $64.10 with fees. "In [Sheeran's] case, for everyone -- the promoter, manager, his agent -- it was a gut instinct. The time was right," said Melissa Ormond, the entertainment president at the Madison Square Garden Co., which owns MSG and Radio City.

While these budding acts have the opportunity to play large venues, Bongiovanni advises caution. "They can demonstrate the commercial potential and sell tickets, but can they do a show that will leave people satisfied and wanting more?" he said. "You get offered a lot of money to play these big halls, and it really takes someone with good management and good instincts to say, 'I'm not ready at this point.' "

Imagine Dragons' manager said he and the band have had conversations about where and when to play particular venues and territories.

"We're not trying to play the biggest rooms we can, and we wouldn't do it because we know we can sell it out. It's not about trying to make as much money as we can," said manager Mac Reynolds. "It's about looking at the trajectory and where we're at and what feels appropriate."

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in Madison Square Garden and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.

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