Here’s an all-night conversation topic: Who are the best-selling musical artists of all time? The answer depends on how you calculate sales. Do you rank by the number of albums sold?
It’s a start, but what about singles and digital streaming? Should you adjust for inflation? What about musicians who recorded duets with other artists?
Do they both get credit? Or what about a charity ensemble like “We are the world”? There were a lot of musicians at the recording session?
Or should you factor in compilations? Tracking Elvis Presley’s compilations alone would be a long list.
How do you calculate and rank the best musicians ever? One way (and there will be room for debate in the comments) is to use a calculation that considers all the above factors. Chart Masters created the Commensurate Sales to Popularity Concept (CSPC) to answer these questions.
The CSPC is a measurement unit that includes digital and physical sales. The formula is complex, but you can get a good idea of how items are weighted in this ChartMasters article. Here’s the basic formula: 1 CSPC = 1 album = 1 music video = 10/3 physical singles = 10/1,5 digital singles = 1500 audio streams = 11,750 video streams
But the formula is just the start. ChartMasters adjusts the number to remove double-counting. Double counting can happen in several ways. One example is downloading Taylor Swift’s “Cowboy like Me,” then later purchasing her entire Folklore album.
The CSPC accounts adjust so that the song isn’t counted twice. Here are the top twenty musicians of all time from ChartMasters.
1. Drake – 338.8 million CSPC
Aubrey Drake Graham is a Canadian actor, rapper, producer, and entrepreneur. The CSPC calculation only includes his music, however. Drake’s debut album, “Thank Me Later” (2006), was the first in a line of successes.
Music critics jumped on the Drake train after the release of “Take Care” in 2011. But it was Drake’s release of “Nothing Was the Same” (2013) that dramatically increased his fan base. “Nothing was the Same” and “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late” reached the multi-platinum in the United States.
The success continues with “Toosie Slide,” released in 2021. Drake’s awards include 4 Grammy Awards and 6 American Music Awards. Drake is at or near the top of almost any list of musicians, including Billboard’s Hot 100.
2. Rihanna – 289.2 million CSPC
Rihanna’s 293.2 million CSPC is no surprise to music fans. Her music seems to play at every box store and makes you want to dance down the aisle. She came to the US from Bridgetown, Barbados, at the request of music record producer Evan Rogers.
That was in 2005. Rihanna signed on to tour with Def Jam, but she also recorded two superhits: “Music of the Sun” (2005) and “A Girl Like Me” (2006). Over the next fifteen years, she releases 14 songs that topped Billboards charts. And another 31 of her releases reached the top 10. Rihanna is a master of the music video format.
Please take a quick look at her fan page to see row after row of top-earning videos. Or you can follow her on social media @rihanna.
Rihanna continues to excel in music and fashion. Forbes estimates her worth at $1.7 billion, making her the wealthiest of women musicians.
3. The Beatles – 281.7 million CSPC
You knew that the Beatles would make any list of top-earning musicians. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo star created new ways to mix classical and pop music with 4-part harmonies and catchy rhythms. They developed their unique sound in Liverpool clubs before dominating British pop music.
In 1964, the Beatles flew to the US, and Beatle Mania began. You can find the Beatles at Grammy Awards and Brit Awards.
They have had more number-one albums than any other entertainer. If you haven’t seen it yet, Ron Howard’s documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” is a spectacular way to spend a rainy afternoon.
4. Eminem – 238.5 million CSPC
Rapper Eminem, born Marshall Bruce Mathers III, released his first platinum album in 1999. “The Slim Shady LP” sold faster than any other album in rap history. His “Recovery” album won Eminem a second Grammy in 2010.
In addition to his 2 Grammy Awards, Eminem has received 4 MTV Music Eminem has shared many of his struggles with addiction and recovery. Several fans have credited his sharing as part of their own recoveries. Eminem released Kamikaze in 2018, and it immediately rose to the top of the Billboard 200 list.
“Music to Be Murdered By: Side B” won more acclaim from fans and critics. His compilation album “Curtain Call: The Hits” was on Billboard’s Top 200 for more than a year. Forbes estimated Eminem’s net worth to be around $50 million in 2019.
5. Michael Jackson – 233.5 million CSPC
Michael Jackson may be the most recognized musical act in the world following the Beatles. Jackson’s music earnings began by recording with his brothers. Like his brothers, Michael Jackson recorded solo albums in addition to performing with the Jackson 5.
Jackson’s first album, “Got to Be There,” included 2 songs that climbed to the top of the Billboard 100: “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” and “Rock with You.” Thus began a career that earned 15 Grammy Awards, 6 Brit Awards, a Juno Award, and a Golden Globe. Jackson recorded 13 number one songs on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Thriller” stayed at the top of the list for 37 weeks. Jackson’s “Thriller” video introduced the world to the Moonwalk. The video helped MTV become the music video platform.
Jackson has been inducted into several halls of fame, including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Black Entertainment Hall of Fame. Jackson died of an overdose of propofol in June 2009, but his music continues to generate sales.
In 2021, the Michael Jackson estate contested an IRS ruling and won. Now that the tax dispute is settled, more projects featuring may be in the works.
6. Elvis Presley – 226.6 million CSPC
The King of Rock’n’roll is another late entertainer still earning revenues from his music. Forty years after his death, Elvis Presley is still considered a cultural icon of Americana. He recorded his first album in 1954.
Elvis released “Heartbreak Hotel” in 1955, and it became the first of a long string of number-one hits. Presley’s career included country, pop, and rock music hits. He received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and has been inducted into the Rock’n’roll Hall of Fame.
Elvis Presley is one of many artists lost to drug addiction. He died in an overdose in 1977, leaving a hole that will never be filled.
7. Taylor Swift – 225.7 million CSPC
Taylor Swift began her career as a country music singer and songwriter in 2004. Her first album, “Taylor Swift,” included country hits “Our Song” and “Should’ve Said No.” “Teardrops on My Guitar” crossed over into pop music.
“Fearless” (2008) became a Diamond album. On the “Speak Now” album, Swift continued to mix country and pop music. Until her fourth album, “Red” (2012), she became an international sensation as a pop artist.
Her many top-ten hits include “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” “Shake It Off,” “Blank Space,” “Bad Blood,” “Look What You Made Me Do,” and “You Need to Calm Down,” and “Willow.” Taylor Swift released two albums during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. “Folklore” and “Evermore” were “sister albums” in Swift’s view, and both rose to the Billboard Hot 100 and the Billboard 200.
Millions of fans bought the albums, and Swift became the 2020 highest-paid artist in the US. Among her many awards, Swift has 3 Grammy Awards and a Global Icon Award. Swift created her own production company to produce her own music videos.
She directed the video for “The Man” and won an MTV Video Music Award. Taylor Swift’s career is likely to continue for several years, so look for her to move up on the list of best-selling musicians ever.
8. Justin Bieber – 200.5 million CSPC
Love him or hate him, Justin Bieber sells a lot of music. Bieber became a teen idol with the release of “EP My World” (2009). His first studio album went to first place on the Billboard 200.
The single “Baby” was successful internationally and is one of the best-selling singles of all time. Bieber released “Under the Mistletoe” in 2011. This Christmas album was a number one hit on the Billboard 200.
Bieber’s next album, “Believe,” targeted adult audiences. Bieber collaborated with Jack Ü to win a Grammy Award for the Best Dance Recording. Like Taylor Swift, Bieber still has several years left in his career.
The album “Purpose” included Bieber’s plans to start touring again in 2022. For his schedule, check the Justin Bieber website.
9. Ed Sheeran – 193.8 million CSPC
Ed Sheeran does a bit of everything. He writes songs, sings, produces records, and acts. In 2011, Sheeran released “+” (Plus) went to the top of the British charts.
Ed Sheeran is English, and 2 of his albums are among the top-selling albums on the Official Charts Company list. “X” (Multiply) Sheeran’s second studio album became the international best-selling album of 2015. Continuing the pattern of math symbols, Sheeran’s next album was “÷” (Divide).
Two singles on the album (“Shape of You” and “Castle on the Hill”) topped the charts in several countries, including the UK and the US. The singles established Sheeran as an international entertainer, and he won the Global Recording Artist of the Year in 2017. In 2019 Sheeran’s international ÷ Tour became the highest-grossing tour ever.
His most recent release, “No.6 Collaborations Project,” includes Justin Bieber, Eminem, 50 Cent, Cardi B, Paulo Londra, and several other star singers.
10. Sir Elton John – 193.4 million CSPC
Sir Elton John joins the Beatles and Ed Sheeran as UK artists on the best-selling musicians of all time. John began his music career in 1967 and is still performing. At the start, John was a songwriter and session musician for other musicians.
He released “Empty Sky” as his first album in 1970 that included “Your Song.” “Elton John,” his second studio album, reached the top ten in the UK and the US. John is one of the most awarded musicians in history.
He has a Disney Legends Award for the Lion King. The soundtrack for the movie has sold over 15 million copies and remained on the Billboard 200 for 9 weeks. John has been inducted into 2 halls of fame.
John has received many awards for his work raising funds for AIDS. In 1998, Queen Elizabeth knighted Elton John.
His Farewell Yellow Brick Road tour has already grossed $358 million. The tour was originally scheduled to last 3 years, but the coronavirus pandemic temporarily halted the tour.
11. Kanye West – 190.3 million CSPC
Kanye West is another multitalented artist with successes as a singer, record producer, and songwriter. “The College Dropout” (2004), West’s first album, won approval from critics. “The College Dropout” was a hip-hop album, but West has combined beats and melodies from several musical styles since then.
His unique styling has sold more than 160 million records. Kanye West won 22 Grammy Awards, 3 Brit Awards, and the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. In 2019, West released a Christian hip hop album that reached the top of the Billboard 200.
A year later, West produced another Christian album that included modernized Gregorian chants in Latin. More recently, Kanye ran for President of the United States.
12. Mariah Carey – 175.7 million CSPC
Mariah Carey is another American singer who has built her own style of music. Her first album “Mariah Carey,” sent 5 singles to number one on the Billboard Hot 100. Carey followed this early success with the release of three chart-topping albums that included the hits “Hero,” “Without You,” and “One Sweet Day.”
Carey was named the Best Selling Female Pop Artist of the Millennium at the turn of the century. Carey suffered a string of physical and emotional problems that hindered her continuing success. Her next successful album was The Emancipation of Mimi” in 2005.
Back on the best-seller track, Carey expanded her career to include acting in “Precious” in 2009. She followed her appearance in “Precious” with 16 additional film roles. Mariah Carey may be most recognized as a judge on American Idol.
13. Madonna – 173.8 million CSPC
Madonna Louis Ciccone’s musical career as a solo act began with her first album in 1983. A year later, she released “Like a Virgin,” and her career shot off. Her popularity grew with movie appearances in “Desperately Seeking Susan,” “Dick Tracy,” and “A League of her own.”
Madonna received a Golden Globe for Best Actress after appearing in “Evita” in 1996. Today Madonna is the highest-grossing solo artist of all time.
Madonna has recorded 10 songs that reached first place on the Billboard Hot 100. “I Don’t Search I Find” from her most recent album “Madame X” was her 50th number-one on Billboard’s Dance Chart.
14. Bruno Mars – 172.9 million CSPC
Bruno Mars was born Peter Gene Hernandez. He was born and raised in Hawaii, but he moved to Los Angeles to start his music career. Mars became famous when he recorded the vocals for “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B and “Billionaire” by Travis McCoy.
Bruno Mars released his first album Doo-Wops & Hooligans, in 2010. Two years later, Mars released “Unorthodox Jukebox” Two tracks topped the hit list “Locked Out of Heaven” and “When I Was Your Man.” Today he has released 8 singles that reached the top of the Billboard 100.
15. Garth Brooks – 165.1 million CPC
Rounding off the top 15 is Garth Brooks. Nine of his albums have reached diamond status. Brooks was named the “Artist of the 90s” by American Music Awards.
Brooks took a hiatus from 2001 to 2005 to spend more time with his wife and children. His tour schedule made him miss too much of his family. In 2005, he began appearing at the Wynn in Las Vegas.
Garth Brooks joined the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2012. Brooks made a comeback world tour in 2014 with Trisha Yearwood.
In 2020, Brooks became the youngest person to receive the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. “Amazing Grace” for the inauguration of Joe Biden.