Music

Ed Sheeran vs the music critics: Why he's so desperately wrong

Ed Sheeran says we don't need music critics in an era of streaming. But with 100,000 songs added to Spotify every day, where should we start?

Ed Sheeran at the Berlinale

“Why do you need to read a review?” says Ed Sheeran in this month’s Rolling Stone. “Listen to it. It’s freely available! Make up your own mind. I would never read an album review and go, ‘I’m not gonna listen to that now’.”

Sheeran’s view is that, in an age where every release is immediately available to everyone via streaming services, then critics no longer have a role. The era when we needed reviewers to tell us if an album is worth our hard-earned £10-15 is over. Nowadays we spend that same £10-15 on a streaming subscription anyway. You don’t need a gatekeeper when you’re playing in a huge national park.

This is not a surprising opinion for someone like Ed Sheeran. His music is widely greeted by critics with a shrug and a variation of “yeah, it’s fine”, so he’s unlikely to be endeared to us as a group. More than that though, of course Ed Sheeran, the biggest male solo artist in the entire world, doesn’t need reviewers. Everyone with a possible interest in a new Ed Sheeran album will know that one is coming. He’s on the side of buses. He’s the pre-role on every YouTube video. Spotify and Apple Music are putting his tracks at the top of playlists and recommendations. Everyone knows there’s an Ed Sheeran album out, and if they’ve got any appetite (and presumably millions and millions of people do) they’ll give it a whirl.

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But what about the other 99,982 songs that will be added to Spotify on the same day that Ed’s new album is released on May 5? Last year, CEOs of Universal Music and Warner Music said that around 100,000 songs are added to Spotify every day. Every Friday there are a couple of hundred notable new albums released that are of interest to a mainstream music fan, spanning genres and age-groups. It’s all very well for Ed Sheeran, Taylor Swift and Adele, but what about everyone else?

That’s the first thing Ed’s got wrong. Critics aren’t here to tell you that there’s a new Ed Sheeran album that you might like. We can, and we will, but that’s not our main purpose. You don’t need us for that. What we’re here to tell you is that Tim Arnold, once frontman of the indie band Jocasta, has a new album out on the same day, and that it’s a gorgeous, swooning and smart piece of melodic drama that you probably didn’t know about until I told you, just now. That there’s a new Smashing Pumpkins album out that day as well, and that if they’re a band you’ve written off or forgotten about, then – just FYI – it’s really good, and you should give it a spin (no, really, it’s Billy Corgan’s The Wall). That Draconian Reign, a “symphonic deathcore” band from Nottingham release their second EP on May 5 and, alright, I’ve not heard it, but if I read a good review I might look it up.

To say critics have no purpose in the age of streaming is to say flashlights have no purpose in the night. It’s all very well if you live on the main road, but some of us need to find our way through the backstreets where they can’t afford the lighting bill.

The second thing Ed gets wrong is that music critics aren’t here to tell people what to think. We’re here to tell people what we think. People don’t just read music reviews to find out if an album is any good, they read them to be entertained and informed. A good reviewer doesn’t just tell you whether they like an album, they’ll also tell you enough about it to let you know if it’s something you might investigate regardless of their take.

Finally, music critics write for love. We certainly don’t do it for much money. Even the traditional free records have vanished in the age of streams. No. It’s for love. And that love translates to the page. Real fiery enthusiasm, as well as properly vitriolic loathing are as much fun to read as they are to write. They’re an artform in themselves. They can exist simply to exist. Music critics love music every bit as much as Ed Sheeran does. That’s why we write about it. That’s why we care so much.

He might not need us, but that’s okay. We’re not for him. Or are we? I’d probably not listen to the new Ed Sheeran album off my own back. I haven’t really enjoyed his others. But if I read a really good piece of criticism that told me about a bold new direction, or dug into some uniquely personal themes or interesting sounds then I might be tempted. Who knows, maybe Ed will read this and give the Tim Arnold album a try? Mission accomplished.

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