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.
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?