One of the greatest debates in the music world among listeners and even between record companies revolves around the highly controversial topic of who’s the best-selling artist of all time. From time to time many record companies and music artists have claimed global sales that can’t be accurately stated by any logical standard, which only adds to the confusion.
From the primitive (organizationally speaking) and inaccurate charts of the ‘30s and ‘40s to the modern era of YouTube and digital sales, the criteria of commercial success have changed so drastically that we can’t realistically compare the artists of today with yesterday. For example, back in the ‘90s an album’s price started at $25 and could reach $40 or more (for a double album), while nowadays for ninety-nine cents you can download Taylor Swift’s and Rihanna’s new songs on your phone, which in theory counts as buying a record that cost twenty and thirty times as much in the ‘80s and ‘90s. For this reason the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) recently divided the all-time charts between physical record sales and digital sales.
Even though we intentionally excluded modern artists from our list for the aforementioned reason, we also left out music giants such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, ABBA, Bee Gees, Diana Ross, and Deep Purple among others, simply because we don’t have enough official figures for their actual sales, but only claims. After taking into account every official source we could find in the music industry we proudly present the most accurate (in terms of total certified units sold from official markets) chart of the 25 top selling music artists of all time.
Rod Stewart – 76 Million
With six consecutive number one albums, six number one singles on the UK charts and sixteen top ten singles in the US (four reaching number one on the Billboard Hot 100), Rod Stewart is one of the most successful chart-topping British solo artists ever.
Britney Spears – 80 Million
Britney Spears is one of the greatest teen music stars the world has ever seen and her commercial success during the late 1990s and early 2000s can be compared only to the likes of Madonna and Michael Jackson. However, the claim of 200 million in total sales by her record company is highly exaggerated. There’s no doubt about this total when including her more recent digital sales, but the official physical sales of her albums and singles don’t exceed 80 million worldwide.
Phil Collins – 85+ Million
Phil Collins had a decorated music career during the course of which he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2003, and into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of Genesis in 2010. Even though Collins’s worldwide sales as a solo artist are estimated to be over 150 million, his official certified units are just a little over 85 million.
Metallica – 90 Million
Metallica’s eponymous 1991 album has sold over 16 million copies in the United States over the past twenty-three years, making it the best-selling album of the SoundScan era. Metallica is without a doubt one of the most commercially successful bands of all time, with estimated sales of over 120 million worldwide, a number that seems to be realistic, especially if one takes into account that their official certified album sales in the United States are about 55 million.
Aerosmith – 90+ Million
Aerosmith is one of the longest-living bands in history (almost forty-five years) and claim to be the biggest-selling American rock band in history with more than 150 million sales worldwide, a claim that the Eagles can easily challenge. Even though nobody can be sure about the accumulative sales of any artist globally, from what we know from the available markets worldwide, Aerosmith hasn’t sold more than 95 million albums, which is less than the official sales of the Eagles in the US alone.
Barbra Streisand – 97 Million
With fifty-one gold, thirty platinum, and thirteen multi-platinum albums and 71.5 million albums sold in the United States alone, Barbra Streisand is the biggest-selling female artist in US history and one of the very few artists who have won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony. However, her claims of a worldwide total of over 250 million is wildly exaggerated, especially when taking into account that her commercial success has never been as strong abroad as it has been domestically.
Bruce Springsteen – 100 Million
“The Boss” has always been a hard-working man who has earned many accolades for his music, including an incredible twenty Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, and an Academy Award, among others. Additionally, he was inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. With his latest album, High Hopes, he reached the magic number of 100 million certified unit sales globally.
Billy Joel – 100+ Million
Billy Joel, even though widely unknown among millennials, is the third biggest-selling artist in the US behind Elvis and Garth Brooks and his Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2 has gone platinum twenty-three times, which makes it the third best-selling album of all time in the United States. A member of both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Billy Joel is also one of the biggest-selling artists ever with official certified sales of over 100 million.
The Rolling Stones – 100+ Million
This might surprise many readers but the Rolling Stones, the longest-living band in history, hasn’t sold as many albums as one might think. Their estimated sales are thought to be over 200 million, but their certified units sold say otherwise, with no more than half this figure. The legacy of the timeless band, however, can be traced to the fact that six of the top twenty highest-grossing concert tours were theirs. The Voodoo Lounge Tour and A Bigger Bang Tour were the top tours of the 1990s and 2000s, respectively.
U2 – 105 Million
U2 started as a small, rebellious music act from Ireland and literally conquered the world, mainly thanks to their charismatic front man Bono. During the course of their epic career they have won 22 Grammy Awards, more than any other band, and in 2005, they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility. Additionally, their U2 360° Tour set the incredible record for the highest-grossing concert tour with $736 million in ticket sales, and for the highest-attended tour with over 7.2 million tickets sold. Not bad, huh?
Queen – 105+ Million
With eighteen number one albums and eighteen number one singles in the US, UK, and European charts combined and classic hits such as “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust,” and “We Are the Champions,” Queen’s place in music history is secure. Furthermore, their Greatest Hits (1981) album is the biggest-selling album in UK history with 6 million and their estimated total sales vary from 150 to 300 million, so we will stick with the accurate number of over 105 million certified copies sold.
AC/DC – 110 Million
It is estimated that AC/DC has sold more than 200 million albums worldwide, including 71.5 million in the United States alone, while their epic album Back in Black has sold an estimated 40 million units worldwide with 22 million of them in the US. Their certified sales stand at 110 million worldwide, but it’s 100 percent certain that they have sold more than that.
Whitney Houston – 112 Million
Whitney broke several records during her short but legendary prime: She is the only artist to chart seven consecutive No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hits; her 1985 debut album, Whitney Houston, became the best-selling debut by a woman at the time, and her famous remake of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” became the best-selling single by a woman in music history, while The Bodyguard is one of the highest-selling soundtracks to date. With certified sales of over 112 million and countless awards and honors under her belt, Whitney Houston’s greatest legacy will always be her incredible voice.
Eminem – 115 Million
Eminem is the best-selling hip-hop artist of all time and the best-selling artist of the 2000s with total official album sales reaching 45 million in the United States alone. His worldwide album and single sales (including digital) stand at more than 155 million, but we counted only the physical sales as we have done for the rest of the artists on our list.
Pink Floyd – 115+ Million
According to their record company the legendary band has sold more than 250 million records worldwide, including 74.5 million certified units in the United States. Despite their undeniable commercial success however, Pink Floyd’s claim to fame and musical legacy can be attributed to their unique use of philosophical lyrics, sonic experimentation, and elaborate live shows, which had a huge impact on many great groups and solo artists that followed.
Celine Dion –125 Million
Celine Dion is the only female artist to have two singles to sell more than a million copies in the UK and her 1995 album D’eux is the best-selling French-language album of all time to date. Not bad for a girl who started her music career because of a cheesy Eurovision Song Contest. In 2004, she was presented with the Chopard Diamond Award at the World Music Awards for becoming the best-selling female artist of all time, an award that was highly disputed for its accuracy.
Nonetheless, Dion undoubtedly remains one of the best-selling female artists of all time with certified sales of over 125 million copies while her record company makes claims of over 200 million albums sold worldwide.
Mariah Carey – 130 Million
Let’s take a deep breath and start with Mariah’s commercial achievements: her duet with Boyz II Men, “One Sweet Day,” spent a record sixteen weeks on top of the Billboard Hot 100, and remains the longest-running number one song in US chart history; she was the best-selling recording artist of the 1990s; she has eighteen number one singles in the US, which makes her the female artist with the most number one singles in history, and to top it all off, she has a five-octave vocal range and her signature use of the whistle register made her famous worldwide. Want more?
Eagles – 130+ Million
Despite what Aerosmith might claim, according to the official numbers the Eagles are the biggest-selling American band of all time, with an estimated total of over 150 million records worldwide, which seems to be realistic if one takes into account that their certified album sales are over 130 million with a little more than 100 million of those in the US alone. Their Greatest Hits (1971–1975) shares the top spot with Michael Jackson’s Thriller as the best-selling album ever in the US with 29 million copies sold and is one of the highest-selling albums globally with 45 million copies sold worldwide.
Led Zeppelin – 140 Million
According to various sources, Led Zeppelin’s official record sales are supposed to be somewhere between 200 and 300 million units worldwide. With RIAA-certified sales of 111.5 million, they are the second best-selling band in the United States behind the Beatles and one of the most commercially successful music acts in history.
Garth Brooks – 145 Million
Garth Brooks is statistically the biggest-selling music artist in US history and overall third behind the Beatles and Elvis Presley. He’s the solo artist with the most diamond albums in RIAA’s history, with six of his albums achieving sales of over 10 million copies. As of now his albums continue to break records and according to Nielsen Soundscan, his albums sales up to 2014 are about 70 million, which makes him the best-selling artist in the United States since the advent of the SoundScan era (1991 to the present). Simply put, Garth is Country’s absolute king.
Elton John – 162 Million
Elton John ruled the pop and rock airwaves throughout the ‘70s, allowing him to attain superstar status around the world by the time he was thirty. The 1997 version of “Candle in the Wind,” which was rewritten to celebrate the life of Princess Diana, sold over 33 million copies worldwide and is considered to be the best-selling single of all time. With estimated sales of more than 250 million records worldwide, Elton John is the biggest-selling British solo artist ever, and the second best-selling British musical act of all time, surpassed only by the Beatles.
Madonna – 166 Million
Madonna is one of the very few artists in history who was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in her first year of eligibility. Her record company claims that the phenomenal artist has sold more than 300 million records worldwide. She has also been recognized as the best-selling female recording artist of all time by the Guinness Book of World Records and knowing Madonna’s global impact in the music world we have no reason to doubt any of these facts. However, her certified sales via the available official markets hardly reach 170 million.
Michael Jackson – 175 Million
Despite Michael Jackson and his record labels always exaggerating to a great extent about their sales and achievements, there’s no doubt that the “King of Pop” set numerous records during the course of his epic career including the best-selling album of all time (Thriller), the best-selling music video of all time, and winning more music awards than any other musician or band in history. However, his claim of 750 million records sold is inaccurate and his certified sales don’t surpass 175 million at the moment, while his fans make claims of estimated total sales of about 350–400 million globally.
Elvis Presley – 210 Million
“The King” is the only solo artist in history who has broken the 200 million barrier, and the scariest part is that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) first began tracking sales of Elvis Presley’s music in 1958, which means that they don’t include many of the successful recordings he released before that year. Even under these circumstances, Elvis has more gold (90), platinum (52) and multi-platinum (25) album awards than any artist and is the best-selling solo artist of all time in the US. However, RCA’s claims that Elvis has sold more than one billion records are ridiculous and it’s believed that Elvis hasn’t sold more than 600 million records worldwide.
The Beatles – 265 Million
The Beatles hold pretty much every music record there is and that’s not an exaggeration whatsoever: They have the most number one albums on the US charts with 19; the most number one singles in the US with 20; the most number one albums on the British charts, and have sold more singles in the UK than any other act. According to the RIAA, the Beatles are the best-selling music act in the United States, with 178 million certified units sold and they hold the same honor in the UK, Germany, and the rest of Europe as well.
Despite all the records they have broken and being the most famous music band of the twentieth-century, their claims of 1.5 billion records worldwide has proved to be false even though it seems very possible for them to become the first music act to soon break the 300 million barrier of certified sales if their albums continue to sell as well as they have for the past two decades.