IQ Tour of the Year 2022: Ed Sheeran + – = ÷ x
It’s 8.29 pm at Dublin’s Croke Park, 23 April 2022. The sense of anticipation among the 82,000 fans present – here to see Ed Sheeran kick off his fourth world tour, the +–=÷× Tour (AKA the Mathematics Tour) – is building to fever pitch; a giant red and yellow screen in front of the stage has been displaying a ten-minute count down, and there’s just one minute to go.
When it hits zero, the screens go up and Sheeran launches into Tide, the opening track of his fifth studio album, 2021’s =; a joyous frenzy and outpouring of celebration ensues.
“Magic” is how the Irish Examiner describes it; “a show that will live long in the memory,” adds the Independent. “When the music started, to hear and see the audience’s reaction and share their excitement, was really emotional,” says Helen Himmons, +–=÷×’s production manager. “To be standing there experiencing so many original, custom-designed elements all coming together for the first time in front of 82,000 people was exhilarating,” adds Bren Berry of Aiken Promotions, who was responsible for all ten of Sheeran’s Irish dates.
But that night was just the start; over 53 more shows in 2022 Sheeran wowed fans and critics alike and truly put on a show for the ages. From the sheer number of fans that he entertained to some of the groundbreaking production elements and the success of touring such a mammoth show in the challenging post-Covid environment, it’s no surprise that we have awarded Sheeran and his team IQ’s Tour of the Year award for 2022.
Galway Girl(s and Boys)
The anticipation in Dublin wasn’t just because Sheeran is one the world’s biggest pop stars and musical icons or that he has a particularly passionate fanbase in the Emerald Isle (in total he sold 410,000 tickets in Ireland, incredible for an island with less than 7 million inhabitants). It was also the first major outdoor concert in Ireland in three years, following the Covid-19 pandemic. “We sold 225,000 tickets in the first hour,” says Berry, “and if the dates had been available, we could have sold extra shows in Limerick and Belfast.”
But being the first large, outdoor event post-Covid also brought challenges. “The venue, local council, and suppliers all had different opinions about what should happen regarding Covid-19,” adds Berry. “There was also quite a bit of debate in the media about conditions that should be applicable for what was really the first big show in Ireland for three years.” The show – and the tour so far – went off without a hitch though; no mean feat considering its scale.
“We sold 225,000 tickets in the first hour and if the dates had been available, we could have sold extra shows”
And the numbers themselves are mind-boggling. Over 3.1m tickets sold, generating over £200m in revenue. 125 crew spread over three separate teams (plus 80 local crew at each venue); 84 trucks hauling over 56 tonnes of gear; a unique, custom-built stage design that had never been toured before; brand-new, state-of-the-art pyro effects; and even discussions with the UK government at Cabinet level.
Chief architects behind the tour, alongside Sheeran, are artist manager Stuart Camp and agents Marty Diamond from Wasserman Music for North America and Jon Ollier from One Fiinix Live for Europe and the rest of the world.
Revealing the detailed planning for the Mathematics production, Camp says, “We were talking about this show before we completed the Divide tour in the summer of 2019. The in-the-round idea has been knocked back and forth for several years, but this was the time to take the plunge – although the pandemic did throw a curveball, so we did consider going to a more standard end-on show given the uncertainties regarding what touring would look like.”
Explaining why the tour visited the markets and venues that it did across Europe, Ollier tells IQ, “You can only do what you do in the short season of weather window for stadium shows, and that’s sort of what dictated our tour routing in 2022. Certainly, there were no ‘filler’ dates or markets on the European tour leg.”
Turning to the actual show itself, Camp says, “We just wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before…to make the show as special and unique as we could.”
That remit fell upon the shoulders of production designer Mark Cunniffe, who notes, “It’s a huge show in terms of industrial presence, but it has a very theatrical feel and attention to detail that give it its unique look.”
But the complexity of the production was daunting, and Sheeran’s agent discloses that the core team initially worked on two concepts, just in case the more ambitious option would not work. “The caution on our part was in our expectations as we emerged from the pandemic,” says Ollier. “Our attitude was simply to have a good crack at it to see what we could achieve.
“We just wanted to do something that we hadn’t done before…to make the show as special and unique as we could”
“We worked on the ‘plan B’, involving a traditional end-on stage, in parallel, flipping between the two concepts as we worked out what was feasible financially as well as logistically and from an engineering perspective. The watershed moment was when Ed decided that he had to deliver the best show possible to the fans because everyone had endured such a lot during the pandemic, and he wanted to give them something they could remember for the rest of their lives. So that’s the moment we dumped the idea of the end-on stage and put all our efforts into the show being in-the-round.
“What everyone has put together is the most ambitious tour I’ve ever worked on; the fact we were trying to pull it off while we were in the pandemic made it all the more complicated but also all the more satisfying.”
And hinting at the groundbreaking nature of the setup, artist manager Camp adds, “By far the most extraordinary feature of the show is the structural cable net system. Whist it’s an existing architectural principle, it has never been toured before and is rightly considered to be the first of its kind in the touring entertainment industry.”
The complexity of that system was developed over the course of 12 months, with Sheeran’s team working with Cunniffe and Himmons to come up with the initial concept before approaching Jeremy Lloyd at Wonder Works to see if it was possible from an engineering perspective. They then engaged Stage One to see if it could be constructed in such a way to make it tourable – could it be put together in the four days they had at each venue prior to the show, then dismantled and removed within 24 hours?
It was a tough challenge.
“I’ve always wanted to present Ed in the round, as I believe that’s the perfect way to get him closer to as many people in the audience as possible,” says Cunniffe. “Once he was happy with that concept, I busied myself designing a show that didn’t have the obligatory use of a four-post roof system, as that would have obscured the artist’s view of the audience. After a great deal of blue-sky thinking, I came up with a structural support with a cable net system that was as aesthetically pleasing as it was functional. It was also a unique design that hadn’t been toured before.”
Such cable net systems are usually supported by some form of permanent structure, typically a roof. Team Sheeran’s challenge was creating an in-the-round setup with no supporting pillars for the stage, screens, or PA – essentially trying to suspend 56 tonnes of equipment on a temporary rig, and one that was relatively quick to build and dismantle. Thanks to some clever engineering, a lot of innovation, and the construction of many custom elements, Cunniffe and co. made it a reality.
“The watershed moment was when Ed decided that he had to deliver the best show possible to the fans because everyone had endured such a lot during the pandemic”
“What we have is a central round stage with a circular ‘halo’ of video and lighting that rises up from the stage floor and suspends in the air,” says Himmons. “It’s held there by a complex cable net system, which is tensioned between six red ‘masts’ – these masts provide a rigging opportunity for plectrum-shaped IMAG video screens and audio hangs and the bases of them are also used as satellite stages for the band members.”
“To make the show efficiently tourable, an important part of the production design was to ensure that as many processes as possible could occur concurrently,” adds Lloyd. Thus, once the masts and cables were installed, along with some advance equipment, production worked in two teams, on opposite masts, ensuring the structure was loaded as evenly – and as quickly – as possible. Similarly, while all this was going on, the stage was constructed off to one side; when the cable net was done, the stage was simply rolled into place.
The resulting show was the event of the summer for millions of fans – and that will be the case for millions more in 2023, 24 and 25, according to Camp.
“2023 will see us go to Australia and New Zealand – a place so close to our hearts and always a joy to tour in – though also the first shows we have done there since the passing of Michael Gudinski, so it will be very poignant,” states Camp.
“Then we are onto the Americas: North America from April to September before we go for some shows into Central and South America. 2024 will hopefully see us go through southeast Asia and the European markets we weren’t able to visit this year, and I envisage the tour coming to a close in summer 2025.”
That’s music to the ears of the many promoters and partners involved in Sheeran’s career.
Salomon Hazot, of Saloni Productions, has worked with Sheeran “since his first show in a club” and is constantly impressed by how “he does all that is required to make things work.”
His two shows at the Stade de France could have been three, he says, but adding another was logistically impossible – the stadium was booked. But the show was, Hazot says, “really unbelievable. There was such a buzz, many French industry people came to the show to see how it worked.”
Steve Tilley of Kilimanjaro Live first promoted Sheeran back in 2009, and says, “The production was next level and really spectacular – they rewrote the rules on what can be achieved in terms of the way they designed and built the whole setup. Every night, I stood and watched in awe.” He adds that it’s an “absolute joy and an honour to be part of the team and work with Ed – everyone involved behaves with pure class and professionalism.”
“They rewrote the rules on what can be achieved in terms of the way they designed and built the whole setup”
FKP Scorpio chief Folkert Koopmans notes that despite Covid and “the extreme circumstances our society and economy find themselves in, this was probably his best-selling tour ever. The enormous ticket demand ensured the list of concert dates grew longer and longer – there was at least one extra show in almost every tour city.” He adds that the tour was “really something very different and special – working with him and his team feels like travelling with family. He’s never stopped being ‘just Ed,’ which is why his story as an artist is relatable – and he’s worked very hard to be where he is right now.”
In Switzerland, Johannes Vogel, owner and director of AllBlues Konzert AG, says that within hours of the first show going on sale, they announced a second – both sold out incredibly quickly (47,500 for both nights). “The production was not just huge and spectacular – it was made to help Ed deliver the best shows possible,” he says. “The level of intimacy for a stadium show and how close he was to the fans was extraordinary – it felt like being in a club with 50,000 others!”
In Austria it was a similar story – 130,000 over two nights, with 70% of the fans in Vienna being female. “The whole concept was incredible,” says Ewald Tatar of Barracuda Music, “and he’s one of the friendliest artists we have ever met. It’s always very professional working with Ed and his team, and we are very proud to be part of this ‘family’ for Austria.”
“It’s quite extraordinary how Ed beats his own sales records every time, and these shows were no exception, with four shows gone in about 48 hours,” says Xenia Grigat of Denmark’s Smash!Bang!Pow! “It’s spectacular to do an in- the-round show – it’s a treat for fans – but this one was in a different league. And the fact that there’s a lot of the same people working with Ed as when he first started out says a lot about the artist and the work environment he has created – everyone on the team is a pleasure to work with.”
“The production was genuinely incredible,” adds Simon Jones of AEG, who has worked with Sheeran for over 11 years. “It’s an engineering masterpiece, and by going to an in-the-round setup, he reached more people – it lent itself so well to the way he performs, which is so inclusive.” Jones also touches on another important element for the +–=÷× Tour – ticketing. “Ed’s main mantra is to protect his fans from unscrupulous touting and from being taken advantage of. So, we always put stringent anti-secondary measures in place, which require an extra couple of layers prior to purchasing.”
“It’s quite extraordinary how Ed beats his own sales records every time, and these shows were no exception, with four shows gone in about 48 hours”
“I think there’s a real legacy to this tour in terms of the ticketing strategy,” says FKP Scorpio’s Daniel Ealam. “We felt that in a post-pandemic world, there really needed to be a way of doing ticketing at this level in a regimented digital way, so we set about writing a comprehensive Ticketing Principles document with various rules for our ticketing partners to adhere to, to protect Ed’s fans. Our ticketing partners in the UK at Ticketmaster, Eventim, See, Gigantic, and AXS really bought into the idea that our tickets needed to stay with the person who bought it, unless sold through an official face-value reseller. This was rolled out throughout Europe and ran really smoothly.”
To fulfil that wish, CTS Eventim’s EVENTIM. Pass was put to the test, with its digital and personalised ticket abilities. “We used EVENTIM.Pass exclusively for the first time in ticket sales for Ed Sheeran’s European tour,” says Alexander Rouff, CTS Eventim’s COO. “After the start of presales, more than 1m digital tickets for the tour were sold in eight countries within a very short time.”
He explains, “The ticket purchased via EVENTIM.Pass can only be accessed on the smartphone using the EVENTIM.App – it is securely stored there, and the associated individual QR code for admission authorisation is only displayed shortly before an event. This and other security features largely prevent unauthorised resale, forgery, and misuse.”
The new system worked “100%” claims Rouff.
Indeed, there was only one attempt at fraud, and “it was detected and prevented by the missing security features of the ticket.” For fans of paper tickets, the company also offered EVENTIM. Memory Tickets. “The Memory Ticket for Ed Sheeran’s tour design was very well received by fans,” adds Rouff.
The A Team
Taking such a mammoth production on the road demands that Sheeran has two advance systems – basically the six red masts, cable net systems, and the satellite stages for the band. These leapfrog each other, so each advance team prepares every other venue. “But there was only one version of the universal production – sound, lights, video, automation, performance stage – so that was loaded in and out for every show,” adds Himmons.
Making sure the production equipment gets from A to B to Z is Global Motion who have been working with Sheeran since he first started playing arenas a decade ago.
“Getting back to work, post-Covid, has been great, but it’s been a bit of a nightmare in terms of finding people who want to work – it’s still not back to normal,” says Global Motion director Adam Hatton. “However, for a huge tour like this, the solution is all in the planning and thankfully team Sheeran are fantastic at that.”
Hatton reports that while for most clients concerned about sustainability, the advice is to simply take less gear on the road, for the huge spectaculars, like Mathematics, that isn’t always possible. “We decided to sign up to DHL’s sustainability programme which offers ways to offset carbon, as well as using electric trucks, etc, where possible.”
“For a huge tour like this, the solution is all in the planning and thankfully team Sheeran are fantastic at that”
And applauding the brains behind the Mathematics Tour, Hatton adds, “The show is extremely impressive – seeing a stadium show in the round is amazing. There were huge logistical issues to overcome to get this show on the road, but when you see the result, it makes everything worthwhile, and it’s been a pleasure to be involved with everyone who has made the tour possible.”
Working hand-in-hand with Global Motion were the trucking partners, who arguably faced the tour’s biggest dilemmas thanks to Brexit making the landscape even more complicated in what was already a Covid-challenged environment.
For the universal production element, KB Event were once again entrusted – the company has been working with Sheeran since 2012. In total, 27 Mega Box Artics and 5 Mega Curtain Side Arctics were required, each with a lead driver and two support leads. But with the tour starting in the Republic of Ireland, moving into the UK, and then touring for three months in mainland Europe, registrations and permits proved tricky to coordinate.
“Because of the Cabotage issues and the solutions we managed to agree with the UK government, all of the trucks on the tour had to be EU-registered vehicles,” says KB Event CEO, Stuart McPherson. “This gave the added complication that all the experienced UK drivers that had worked on previous Sheeran tours had to be sent to Ireland to sit their EU DCPC qualifications before the tour started. This also meant that replacement, standby, and substitute drivers all had to hold EU qualifications, too. This is an issue we have never had to deal with before and presented serious challenges and expenses getting everything in place before the tour started up.”
The proposed routing and show schedules also presented numerous logistical issues, again due to Brexit and the many new rules and regulations now in force regarding cross-border working. To get around this, KB engaged with the UK government and DfT, alongside trade association LIVE and the Road Haulage Association.
After months of negotiation, the UK government decided they would consider a duel registration option, where a company that has registered businesses in the EU and the UK (as long as both held a valid operator’s licence) could switch their EU trucks onto and off a UK operator’s licence. But with this not coming into law until August or September 2022, and the tour starting in April, things looked bleak.
“It’s an engineering masterpiece, and by going to an in-the-round setup, he reached more people”
The power of Sheeran – and the hard work of his transport suppliers – prevailed when a solution was proposed that would see the UK authorities adopt a short-term, temporary fix to get the industry through the summer. “This was accepted and pushed through cabinet just four weeks before the tour started,” says McPherson. “And I can tell you, we all slept a lot better that night!”
With KB Event handling the universal production, the two advanced systems were transported by Pieter Smit. They also faced challenges. “It was extremely difficult to get new trucks in Europe,” reports Steve Kroon, head of sales and relations. “We were lucky that through our extensive network, we found several brands that could deliver trucks with the highest emission class (Euro 6) – we had DAF, MAN, Ford, and Mercedes-Benz.” Kroon reveals it’s the first time the company has toured such a big production using renewable diesel. He adds, “We’re proud to be the first trucking company to have actually entered Sunderland’s Stadium of Light by truck and trailer combination – it was close and narrow, but we did it.”
There were plenty of other issues to solve for an outdoor, temporary, in-the-round setup. To ensure that no waterproofing or covers were required, everything – be it video, lighting, staging, or special effects – had to be IP65 rated. “A lot of time was spent sourcing, and in some cases, manufacturing from scratch, equipment that fulfilled this particular brief,” says Cunniffe.
Furthermore, the nature of stadium pitches or open, soft ground provided another challenge to overcome. “With the outer perimeter of the stage revolving, the entire performance stage has to be completely level in order for it to move,” says Himmons. “As we were not working on flat arena floors this was a challenge, specifically on the greenfield sites we played. And the floors also had to be able to take the weight of the show – some stadiums had underground car parks, directly beneath the pitch, so we had to look at our build process and crane movements, making sure we kept weight evenly distributed during the build, as well as consulting on how to support the floor from below because of the void underneath.”
I See Fire
Pyro was another element where the production and design team wanted to add something new. Tim Griffiths of Pains Fireworks was brought in to create some exciting effects; he didn’t disappoint. The brief, he says, was to “create something spectacular that could be repeated each night within the confines of the set. The incredible floating LED halo was the obvious place for us to mount close-proximity pyros, but the most exciting idea was trying to create a moment at the beginning of the concert using daylight effects. We decided to go for coloured, daylight smoke mines, which are the latest innovation of the past few years. They look stunning when fired in bright daylight and created an incredible rainbow feature four times at the start of each show.”
“Ed has set the bar high now, and I genuinely believe this is the most spectacular and ambitious live show on Earth”
Griffiths also utilised eleven of the latest liquid flame heads from German manufacturer, Galaxis. “The new Galaxis L-Flame was only released last year, and we had ordered the first batch in the UK, used them last summer, and knew that they would look fantastic built into the revolving stage,” he says. “The flame pumps sit under the stage and feed the heads with liquid IPA. The biggest challenge initially was to refine the flame heights and get a consistent flame using smaller nozzles than those supplied to reduce the height and avoid burning the lighting rig.”
Although the sell-out tour could have added extra dates in key cities, Camp admits the approach was a little more cautious than it may normally have been. “The live industry was still re-finding its feet when we put our shows on sale for ’22,” says Camp. “I think it was the first stadium tour to go up post pandemic, and we did the same level of business here in Europe as the last tour.”
Confirming the total of 3.1m ticket sales across Europe during 2022, agent Ollier reveals the next tour leg in Australasia will account for another 700,000 tickets. He says, “Of course, a production of this size doesn’t come without its challenges and there are always going to be bumps on the road and nuances, but Ed has set the bar high now, and I genuinely believe this is the most spectacular and ambitious live show on Earth.”
Talking of Sheeran’s development as an artist, Camp adds, “He really has just simply grown in ability and confidence. This is the first tour we have used a band – albeit only for a quarter of the set – but it has bought another dimension and enabled Ed to perform songs that were previously tricky with just one man and a loop pedal.”
Mathematics’ added element of supporting musicians was just one of multiple surprises to entertain and enthral millions of fans.
The emotion and ambition of that opening show in Dublin rolled all over Europe and is set to be repeated across four additional continents before returning to Europe in 2024. As Bren Berry says of that opening night: “You go all in, roll the dice, hold your breath, and hope you hit the jackpot, which of course Ed and his brilliant team have done with this incredible, ground-breaking show. The opening night worked like a dream – the in-the-round atmosphere was electric, and Ed absolutely smashed it out of the park. I can still see the utter delight on his face coming off the stage.” It’s a sight that sets to be replicated a few more times as the rest of the world gets to experience the +–=÷× Tour in all its brilliance and glory.
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