The calculation here uses the data in the CSV file applying the weighting you've selected for albums and songs. It then "equalises" each year by dividing all the scores by the average in the selected range (so if the image says "Norm 5..9" that is the average score of the 5th to 9th positioned artists in each year).
There are some interesting things to see as the parameters get changed, The Beatles are usually top, but not always, for example when albums have no influence Elvis Presley is normally the top act (for an example look here). When songs are ignored the results only apply after 1950 (of course) and The Rolling Stones are normally second, in this case there are some combinations of parameters that put Elvis fourth (such as this one). The results from setting albums to a low weight seem the most reasonable to us, the start position, this one and this one for example all produce pictures that look OK (but seem to indicate different things).
This page allows you to try your hand at playing with the parameters, if you find anything interesting write and tell us.
The calculation to produce these results is a fairly complex one, so (as it says in the picture) the results come from data version 2.3.37 rather than the current one (version 2.6.0014).
Most Successful Musical Acts
Different choices of the parameters to use lead to a range of final orders for the list. The final choice of how important different components are has to be a personal one. For us many of these varients seem to deliver similar results. Here is one of these calculated orders that takes into account album and song success and balances between recent and early artists (the exact process used in this case is explained in more detail below):
The score was calculated starting from the complete data (a summary data set can be downloaded). The raw scores were then corrected by a factor to take into account the number of chart entries for each year. The album values were given twice the weight of the songs and the combined scores were assigned to the artists.
The plot above shows how the top 52 artists rated for each year of the period 1900-2005. This shows that before 1950 artists had longer periods at the top, which either reflects changing dynamics of the music business or is just tied to the small volume of reliable chart data. When this is taken into account it can be seen that there is no consistent bias, artists from the 1920s and the 1980s have scores that can be related. The data from before 1920 is so sparse that this period cannot reliably be measured.
The dip in scores for 1942-1955 is an interesting artifact and one of the things the charts tell us about long term trends. The tailing off since 1990 is a combination of two factors, first the fact that any act whose first hit was after 1995 (such as Eminem) will not yet have accumulated the volume of hits to reach the higher positions, and secondly that the splintering of the market that has been evident since the mid 1980s makes it more difficult for acts to have widespread success.
Most Written About Musical Acts (in Google Books)
If we want to investigate which artists have been most written about then the chart data we have on this site doesn't tell the whole story. Google have provided a tool that can help, the "Ngram Viewer" (which can be found at https://books.google.com/ngrams/:
The chart above shows some of the most recently written about acts in the Google Books corpus. The artists have been sorted by the frequency of references in the period 1998 to 2009 (the data only goes up to 2009). This once more demonstrates the gap between The Beatles and everyone else. It should also be noted that this list excludes Prince, Madonna, REM, Abba and U2 since all those terms are ambiguous and usually refer to something else, here is a chart including those terms:
The fact these terms are so prevalent in the 19th century is enough of a hint to show why they have to be excluded.
Artists of the millennium
Who was the most successful music artist of the last millennium? On the top of this page the selection has been restricted to recordings, so only those alive since about 1920 have had the technology available to accurately capture their performances, having such a restricted list would seem overly narrow. Given the chance Hildegard von Bingen's singing might have out-sold Britney Spears, but since Hildegard died more than 650 years before the first sound recording we'll never know.
If performers and composers from before the era of sound recordings are to be included there are two other factors, firstly music notation didn't settle down until the 17th century and secondly, in the medieval world, avoiding disease, war and starvation took precedence over most people's musical appreciation. These elements together with a natural bias towards well documented locations (that is mostly European) conspire to mean that only artists from after about 1600 could be considered candidates.
We don't know of any reliable data that can be used to inform this debate, we can't even imagine where objective measurements could be found (if you can suggest some we'd like to hear from you). This particular choice of the top 12 artists of the last 500 years is purely personal. The selection of 12 rather than the more conventional 10 comes from a reluctance to lose some key figures.
12: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky
His various compositions remain popular and continue to be performed all over the world. His personal life was blighted by depression and tragedy, in particular his concern to keep his sexual orientation private obviously had some effect (although how much is a matter of some debate).
The level of her achievements could, perhaps, have place her a few positions further down, but the fact that she is clearly the most successful female musician of all time gives her an additional boost.
10: George Frideric Handel
Handel has to be in the list, if only because of the fact that 12,000 people turned up to one of his charity concerts in 1749 (causing a major traffic jam). He was a major inspiration for Bach, Mozart and Beethoven.
It was his trumpet playing that brought Satchmo to prominence but then his stage presence and distinctive voice gave him significant hits for five consecutive decades. He continued to tour until his death, a month before his 70th birthday.
8: Johannes Brahms
The earliest member of this list to have had one of his own performances recorded, he was a virtuoso pianist who premiered many of his own works. The highly constructed nature of Brahms's works was a starting point for a complete generation of later composers.
7: Glenn Miller
At the time of his disappearance, on his way to play for the troops that had just liberated Paris, he was the most widely known band leader in the world. Despite being too old to be drafted he volunteered to join the US forces in 1942.
In the Mood
6: Bing Crosby
From 1934 to 1954 Bing Crosby sold more records than any other artist, at the same time he was a leading movie star and radio personality. During 1948, the Music Digest estimated that his recordings had filled more than half of the 80,000 weekly hours allocated to recorded radio music in the US.
5: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The fact that he was the first artist to embark on an extended European tour marks Mozart out. The fact that he started performing publicly when he was six and composing even earlier shows an astounding level of preciousness. Since he died aged 35 he had to start early to get all in.
The Marriage of Figaro
4: Johan Sebastien Bach
Whether Bach or Mozart should be placed higher is a matter of some debate. Bach's one advantage is that he lived almost twice as long. In 1747 his reputation was so great that Frederick the Great bullied CPE Bach (JS's son) in to persuading his father to visit the palace at Potsdam, the result was a major work (The Musical Offering).
Whatever happened later the early success of Elvis created the modern music business, of course he had the fortune to have been born at exactly the right time. The fact that he was drafted into the US Army in 1958 disrupted his career at its peak, but he still managed to return to commercial success during the 1960s.
2: The Beatles
Clearly the most successful group of all time, their dominance of the song charts during the short time they were active was absolute. It was their innovation in recording albums, the fact that they wrote so many highly regarded songs and the solo success that all four of them later enjoyed that, just, puts them past Elvis.
Let it be
1: Ludwig Van Beethoven
The fall of the Berlin wall was accompanied by playing of Beethoven's Ninth, a piece of music that had first been performed 175 years before. The continued popularity of his music, his influence on later musicians and the tragic story of his deafness have all contributed to his enduring fame.