A Somewhat Surprising Look at the Best-Selling Recording Artists of All Time

I read a news feed a couple of days ago about Billy Joel, whose alleged addiction difficulties apparently prompted long-time concert mate Elton John to issue a statement of concern and support. This got me to thinking about which of the two had had the more successful career over the years, both having started around the same time. So, I trundled off to Wikipedia, where I found an article entitled “List of best-selling music artists”, which included claimed sales figures for the 140 or so all-time sales leaders, purportedly every artist with sales totalling 50 million units or more. It was an eye opener in many regards.

First off, Elton John has sold 2.5 records (tapes, CDs, etc) for every one flogged by Billy Joel. That doesn’t necessarily translate to more money, though, as John shares his songwriting credits most of the time, whereas Billy Joel has been the solo author of virtually every song in his extensive repertoire.

It should come as no surprise that the Beatles are the No. 1 best-selling (1 billion and counting!) English group, but who would you think would occupy the No. 2 position? I would have guessed the Rolling Stones (cue the error buzzer); in fact, both the Stones and Pink Floyd come in at 200,000,000 apiece, but that was nowhere near the sales amassed by Led Zeppelin and Queen (both hovering at the 300,000,000 mark) and the aforementioned Elton John, who tips the scales at 250,000,000. Next up is Genesis (150,000,000), then David Bowie (140,000,000), Dire Straits and the BeeGees (120,000,000 apiece), and Status Quo (118,000,000). How on earth, one might ask, did Status Quo, with only one Top 40 hit in the US (1968’s “Pictures of Matchstick Men), outsell such perennial favorites as Paul McCartney (100,000,000), Rod Stewart (100,000,000), Phil Collins (100,000,000), the Who (100,000,000), Fleetwood Mac (100,000,000), and the Police (50,000,000)? The answer would seem to lie in their UK sales, with over sixty chart hits in that market, a number unmatched by any rock group in history.

Quite a number of these once best-selling artists have largely slipped from the public consciousness, some of them in a remarkably short period of time: Ace of Base (50,000,000); A-ha (51,000,000); Jean-Michel Jarre (70,000,000); Kylie Minogue (68,000,000); M.C. Hammer (50,000,000); Ray Conniff (50,000,000); the Pet Shop Boys (50,000,000); UB40 (70,000,000); Roxette (60,000,000); and the Scorpions (100,000,000). Where are they now?

Perhaps the most surprising part of the entire article, though, was the success of a number of artists I can virtually guarantee you’ve never heard of, artists whose popularity was (or is) for the most part limited to one country, due to their singing in that country’s language: Johnny Hallyday (France; 100,000,000); B’z (Japan; 75,000,000); Luis Miguel (Mexico; 75,000,000); Ayumi Hamasaki (Japan; 50,000,000); Dreams Come True (Japan; 55,000,000); Glay (Japan; 56,000,000); Hibari Misora (Japan; 68,000,000); Mr. Children (Japan; 50,000,000); Orhan Gencebay (Turkey; 60,000,000); Hikaru Utada (Japan; 50,000,000); Vicente Fernandez (Mexico; 50,000,000). Every one of these folks has sales equal to or greater than Anglophone stars Willie Nelson, REM, Johnny Cash, Alan Jackson, Nirvana, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Coldplay, Tony Bennett, Sade, and the Police. Chart toppers Johnny Hallyday, Luis Miguel, and the B’z have each outsold, among others, Bob Dylan (70,000,000), Enya (70,000,000), Green Day (65,000,000), Pearl Jam (60,000,000), Shania Twain (65,000,000), and the Black Eyed Peas (56,000,000). Go figure.

A brief addendum: Kenny G, the New Kids on the Block, and Meatloaf have each shifted the same number of units as Bob Dylan (70,000,000); Michael Bolton (53,000,000) has slipped by Nat King Cole (50,000,000); and the Village People are tied with Green Day (65,000,000). Does anyone else find that slightly disturbing to the World Order?

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