Which albums had the highest number of worldwide sales?
As has been mentioned elsewhere this site focus on success in the
source charts, not on estimates of
sales. In our experience most quoted sales figures are inherently untrustworthy and
should normally be treated with extreme caution. However there are some
music industry based organisations that are responsible for
defining official "achievement levels" (like Gold and Platinum sales for example).
The audits of these organisations can be trusted as evidence of sales numbers and
from these we can calculate a guaranteed minimum number of sales for each album that is
audited (in millions). Of course many albums have not been analysed in this way, their
absence from these lists indicates only that no-one has paid for them to be audited, not
that they didn't sell the required number of copies. In particular albums from the
1950s or 1960s are noticeably absent, even though a
historical review would appear to suggest they
should have sufficient sales. There are a number of other issues that affect these
numbers, they are described in detail following the table.
This table also includes a calculation, that is our estimate of
the most probable level of worldwide sales. Like all such estimates this number should
be treated with some caution, we have also included a range of possible values to indicate
the uncertainty of the figure. For example, our estimate of the sales of "Thriller"
are in the range 48-65 million.
Of course the numbers indicated in this table are for legitimate sales, they
provide no details of the number of actual copies out there. As an example
during the 1960s and 1970s the sale of music by
The Beatles was illegal in the Soviet Union, as a consequence
there was a thriving black market in bootleg copies of their albums and
copied photographs. Even when these restrictions
were relaxed in the early 1980s the local music publishers
sold enough of their music for at least one current record company to
claim that it was originally financed by the unauthorised sales of
Beatles music. Until the mid 1980s there was no attempt to place
this business on a legal footing.
Looking at the music revenue as a percentage of GDP
suggests that China, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and possibly Italy all sell significant numbers
of albums without reporting them, these sales are not included in the above
figures. The numbers here indicate approved sales, not the number of
copies that exist. Of course it is difficult to guess which artists and
albums are most involved.
The four organisations that have been used are the official bodies in the four
biggest relevant markets.
Each of these groups issues the sales certificates for a particular country.
They all will only audit album sales if a record company both requests
and pays for the work, which means that only albums that someone is interested in
promoting get examined.
RIAA for the USA
The "Record Industry Association of America" certifies albums sold in the USA.
A level of "Gold" indicates 0.5 million sales, "Platinum" 1 million sales,
"2 x Platinum" 2 million sales and so on. The information shown here is from
There is some confusion in the sources about the way that RIAA counts double albums. Sources
indicate that sales of most double albums are counted as two records, so selling 5.5 million copies of,
for example, "Speakerboxx & The Love Below" (a double CD) results in a
"11 x Platinum" award. However some sources clarify this as only being true for
records of longer than a certain duration and state that, for example
"The Wall" was short enough for its "23 X Platinum" to indicate
23 million sales. In addition the packaging can vary between vinyl and CD, so for
example "Grease: The Original Soundtrack" was a double LP (all sales
counting twice) but only a single CD. For this table we have elected to just
ignore all these issues.
BPI for the UK
The "British Phonographic Industry Ltd" certifies albums sold in the
UK. The levels listed here are "Silver" 60,000 sales, "Gold"
100,000 sales, "Platinum" 300,000 sales and "Multi-Platinum" which
indicate multiples of 300,000 sales. This data can be examined at
SNEP for France
The "Syndicat National de l' Edition Phonographique" certifies albums sold in France.
The levels listed are "Gold" 75,000 sales, "Platinum" 200,000 sales
and "Diamond" 750,000 sales. This data comes from www.disqueenfrance.com/.
BMi for Germany
"Bundesverband Musikindustrie" has certified albums sold in Germany since 1975.
The levels are "Gold" 100,000 sales and "Platinum" 200,000 sales, but then
rather oddly "3 X Gold" 300,000 sales and "2 x Platinum" 400,000 sales and
There are also some albums certified as "10 X Gold" (rather than
"5 x Platinum" for some reason), our guess is that has to do with the
logical way that Germans think.
This data came from
unfortunately a really bad web site design makes it quite difficult to
discover album certifications especially for groups towards the end of the
alphabet for any year after 1995.
You will have noticed that the definition of, for example a
"Gold" record varies from country to country, this
is because it is tied to the anticipated sales in each country.
When considering the possible global sales of albums the relative
size of the market
in different countries has to be taken into account.
The IFPI list music revenue from the top 30 countries at
This shows that the distribution of sales in 2003 was:
Russian Federation, Mexico, Brazil, China, South Korea, Turkey,
India, Taiwan, Thailand, Poland, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Hungary, Argentina,
Colombia, Singapore, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Israel, Chile, Malaysia,
UAE, Saudi Arabia, Romania, Philippines, Pakistan, Nicaragua, Croatia,
Slovenia, Egypt, Slovakia, Zimbabwe, Kuwait, Latvia, Ecuador, Estonia,
Bulgaria, Lebanon, Venezuela, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Uruguay, Peru, Paraguay
The album sales figures for the US, UK, France and Germany have been calculated from the
certification levels. The Japanese market is 15% of the global one, however it is
dominated by local music that does not sell much outside the country. For this reason the
Japanese market for international albums is actually less than 2% of the World market. The
other markets also have significant local content, indeed once that is taken into account the four
"regions" above each represent about the same size of adjusted global market.
Once all that is taken into account the expected sales of an album should be 7x in the US,
2x in the UK and 1x each in France, Germany, Southern Europe, Northern Europe,
Anglophone and everywhere else. That is the four major markets we have certifications for
should be 11/15 (that is 73%) of the total.
Even without reducing Japan the four largest markets represent 68% (that is about 2/3rds) of the
world's market. So if, for example, "Thriller" sold 40 million copies in
those four markets then the expected total global sales would be 60 million. If someone
were to claim global sales of, for example 100 million, that would require the
rest of the world to have purchased 60 million copies, or 3 times the anticipate
sales (and that's already assuming the album is the best selling one ever). For
those sales levels to be correct the album would have to have been 3 times as
successful as its nearest rival, which of course would have to show up in the
charts of the majority of other countries (and clearly doesn't). So any claim of
more than 100 million sales for "Thriller"
would be obviously ludicrous.
In our calculation we used the 68% figure (rather than 73%), this means that we are
overestimating the sales, however since this error affects all albums we will stay
with this inflated figure.
Calculating the Probable sales
The minimal sales figure represents a guaranteed certified absolute minimum of the album's sales.
But this is a low estimate, both because the sales were audited some time in the past and
extra sales have happened since then, and also because other smaller markets must have additional sales.
So in order to estimate the actual sales we first need to take into account the
underestimate of sales in the given markets, then we have to take account of the remaining
market in other countries.
The certified sales for the US are generally accepted as a reasonable estimate of sales.
When the total number of certified sales for the other markets are compared it
can be seen that they are always more cautious about sales estimates than the
RIAA. If we accept the US numbers then we should expect the actual numbers for the other
markets to be higher, as shown in the "Expected" column below. We can
therefore calculate an "Adjustment" factor for each market.
So the bare numbers are multiplied by the factor to estimate the actual sales in each of the
four markets. Now this number represents 68% of the global market, so
we can multiply this figure by 1.471 (that is 1/0.68) to get an estimate of the total
worldwide sales. This estimate of the rest of the world's sales has quite a lot of uncertainty.
It is reasonable to assume that the extra sales have a Normal distribution so we can
estimate a range that has a reasonable chance of hitting the correct figure (68%).
Sales over time
As was mentioned the certification authorities started work in the 1970s.
This means that reliable sales numbers are not available for albums released before about
1980. As the greatest album page has shown the impact on
the chart of, for example some albums from The Beatles, was massive. Yet
albums like "Rubber Soul", "Revolver" and
"Let it Be" are not even in the above list. Can that possibly be
accurate, or has the focus on recent sales resulted in a systematic underestimate of
We can start to explore the question of historical sales levels with a set of numbers from the
RIAA for the US music market over the period 1990-2005. This
illustrates how the US revenue from music has changed over the last 15 years, however
this series of data only starts in 1990, much too late to answer our question.
Here is another indicator, the number of Gold disks awarded by the RIAA since 1955.
One way to view this says that the number of certified disks in 1970 was roughly
half that in 1990 so the ratio of sales should be about the same. Awards are
always retrospective, so one might worry that this assumption is too simplistic.
However it is reasonable to assume that the rate of new awards in any
year is related to the number of candidates passing the threshold for the award within that year,
in other words the the number of awards is proportional to sales in that year, even
if the bulk of the album's sales were obtained in previous years. In fact it is
easy to see that this measure will exagerate the volume of sales as time goes on, since
the number of candidates for awards is always being added to.
So the sales for 1990-2005 and the number of gold records both help to hint at the trend
in market size. Using a combination of other such indicators we can estimate the music market
sales for the US for a much longer period.
We can make some reasonable assumptions about how the balance of music sales changed from the
US led music scene of the 1950s to today's more global market (with the US
accounting for just over 1/3 of the sales). This results in the above estimate of the
value of the global music market from 1955-2007.
Finally, if inflation and the changing cost of albums is taken into account the above
plot shows how the real global music revenue has changed over the last 50 years. There are
two factors that complicate the interpretation of the peak between 1970
and 1980, first this era was dominated by the sale of singles rather than
albums, and second the adjustment to account for the relative cost of albums may be too severe.
Unit shipment numbers from Japan suggest that contemporary sales of music in the
1960s was between one third and a quarter of the volumes in the
late 1990s. For the well-known albums on this list (i.e. ones that
continue to sell) it is reasonable to assume that they have doubled this number in the
subsequent 40 years.
Taking all these factors into account it is reasonable to suggest that total sales of top hit
albums from the late 1960s are at least 50% of those in the 1990s.
So we should expect that a "major hit" album of 1965, such as
"Rubber Soul" would have something like half the sales of an
equivalent album from 1995, like "Jagged Little Pill". However
the estimated sales of "Rubber Soul" are less than a quarter of
"Jagged Little Pill". This
appears to indicate that the low representation in this sales lists of The Beatles
(and of course all the other top acts of the 50s, 60s and early 70s) are connected with the
process of auditing rather than reflecting the actual sales numbers of their records.
Of course it is interesting to compare this analysis of the global sales with the
long term trends that can be seen
in the charts.
As with all the complex calculations described on the site you can decide to try out a
different approach, the available CSV File
gives you all the data you need. If your analysis shows something
interesting we will be interested to hear about it.
These results were generated from data
version 1.8.0065 of the data.