Ed Sheeran hits the iTunes chart in early July with two songs “I Don’t Care” with Justin Bieber and “Beautiful People” with Khalid. They share one lyrical theme; social isolation, the idea that I’m a regular guy in a world of people who are better than I – very Ed Sheeran. They also share another element; an association with pop stars who stand in contrast to Sheeran’s nerdy persona. It’s a trick he used before on his last big hit “Shape of You” which featured Stormzy. In none of these cases do the collaborations add much to the songs beyond the associations.
What is the logic behind his collaboration strategy? The guess here is that is he feels his cerebral style is in competition with the more pop style represented by Beiber, Khalid and Stormzy and that to remain relevant he has to associate himself with the hipper generation.
The power dynamic is also interesting. By bringing in Beiber and Khalid, Sheeran has a chance to broaden his audience by reaching out to their audiences. It works the other way too. Note that Rita Ora brought Ed Sheeran into her “Your Song” as a featured artist. She’s reaching up, she’s the artist who could benefit from the Sheeran connection. In that collaboration, Sheeran’s guitar accompaniment could have been done by a hundred other guitar players. His only contribution is the association.
This is the age of collaboration. It’s interesting to note who’s getting the benefit from the combination – there doesn’t seem to be some musical advantage in many of them. Meanwhile, Sheeran doubles down on the strategy; on July 12th his next album releases, No6 Collaborations Project.