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.
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.