Many of these discussions are opinion based and lead to fun arguments, but listing out the best-selling artists of all time is fact based. There's no negotiating or convincing involved, because we've tracked the numbers (for the most part).
There are some older band and artist names listed here that won't surprise you, but some of them will make you think "how in the world did they pull that off" and/or make you question the world's taste in music. The speed at which some of the newcomers climbed this list is staggering.
It's interesting to cross-reference these artists with the top 10 richest musicians in the world, because there's not as much overlap as you'd expect. That's partially due to exorbitant spending or lack of investment. But many of these artists got it right too, though figuring out which may surprise you. Let's jump right into the list of the best-selling artists of all time...
#10 - Taylor Swift
Certified Sales: 214.1 million
Taylor Swift got started early, being professionally signed at age 14. Her narrative songs about her personal life were endearing but also created much media gossip which contributed to her popularity. She started off topping the Billboard Hot Country Songs charts, ultimately bridging over to the pop charts. She's won countless awards, including the Grammys Album of the Year.
She's even been named Woman of the Decade and Artist of the Decade. For years on end she's been the highest grossing artist. Her popularity seems to be waning a bit while she's trying to break into Hollywood and started speaking up about politics, but these mistakes don't erase her unbelievable history in music, which she'll undoubtedly focus on again.
Trivia Facts: For the longest time, Taylor Swift was the sole songwriter for most of her material. Her former record label Big Machine was purchased (including the masters for her first six albums) by a big wig recently. Taylor has been open about her displeasure with the event, saying she's been blocked of even performing her own music now.
#9 - Eminem
Certified Sales: 235.2 million
Eminem's initial role as an entertaining shock rapper quickly faded as people began to realize they were witnessing the evolution of one of the best rappers ever. His many controversies, beefs with other artists, and connections with one of the best hip-hop producers in the game led to more and more sales as he maintained a steady release schedule.
Eventually he began releasing and starring in movies, launched his own record label, Shady Records, and went on to earn 15 Grammy Awards. Nobody can deny the technical ability and raw entertainment value in the man's music, which is the true explanation of how he launched himself up this list fairly quickly.
Trivia Facts: Eminem, who's real name is Marshall Mathers, is the first rapper to receive an Academy Award for Best Original Song, which came out of his movie 8 Mile. He was once sued by his own mother for slander. A bully who beat him up in elementary school sued him for telling the story in rhyme form. The judge dismissed the case and did so while rapping.
#8 - Pink Floyd
Certified Sales: 121.4 million
Pink Floyd had a strong start in 1967 with their first album while being led by Syd Barrett. Later when David Gilmour joined they exploded even further, becoming an international sensation. Interestingly, they only had two singles to ever enter the top 10 in the US or UK, though they had four albums top both charts.
They've had a six decade run, plenty of time to establish themselves as one of the best bands ever over the course of 15 albums. To top it off, they even composed a handful of scores for some lesser known films. Two of their albums, The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wall are among the top-selling albums of all time.
Trivia Facts: Pink Floyd were huge fans of Monty Python and put up a good chunk of the money needed to finance the 1975 movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The band name comes from two of Barrett's favorite blues players, Pink Anderson and Floyd Council.
#7 - Rihanna
Certified Sales: 279.1 million
Rihanna, like Madonna, is known for her artistic evolution, starting with Caribbean influenced albums and moving into dance-pop, R&B, EDM, and hip-hop. It may come as a surprise because it all happened steadily over time, but she's created or won 14 number-one singles, 31 top-ten singles, 9 Grammy Awards, 13 American Music Awards, 12 Billboard Music Awards, and more.
Rihanna has been on a hiatus, growing her cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty, her non-profit, and her fashion house. These will create more pent-up demand and excitement for her upcoming 9th studio album. She's bridged into Hollywood and TV, starring in some major box office films.
Trivia Facts: Rihanna uses her surname Fenty to represent her non-music businesses. She turned around and sued her own dad to stop him from using his Fenty Entertainment brand, saying he's misleading the public and trying to assert association with her brand.
#6 - Led Zeppelin
Certified Sales: 140.6 million
Though Led Zeppelin worked in the blues rock and folk rock genres, they're considered progenitors of heavy metal. That lets you know how much of a wide appeal they have. Their single Stairway to Heaven remains one of the most popular and influential songs in rock history.
Their tours were broke records for attendance. Their albums are among the best-selling. All of their nine albums broke into the top 10 and six hit the number-one spot. Their legacy is monumental among fans and musicians alike. They've won all the awards. They deserve their spot on this list.
Trivia Facts: Led Zeppelin worked in a time before the internet existed. It's been almost 40 years since their last album, and the internet's combined mind power has come to realize just how many of their songs they "plagiarized," if not were heavily influenced by.
#5 - Madonna
Certified Sales: 173.8 million
Madonna had decades of pushing pop hits up the Billboard charts, each one further fueling her rise up this list. She's one of the few artists that constantly reinvents her image and message to stay relevant or exciting. Perhaps more important than any of this is her constant touring, which is additional marketing.
Business activities that help promote her music is the fact that she's a Golden Globe winning actress, owner of Maverick Records, has authored a handful of children's books, is a fashion designer, and owns several health clubs. In music, attention is a huge currency and Madonna knows how to get it.
Trivia Facts: Madonna is the highest grossing solo artist of all time, the most-touring female musician ever, and the best-selling female recording artist of all time, globally. In the USA, she's only second behind Barbara Streisand.
#4 - Elton John
Certified Sales: 189.6 million
Elton John is an extremely talented songwriter, performer, and entertainer. His flamboyance is magnetic. Among his many successes, he holds the record for the best selling single of all time in the UK and USA. He constantly tours and wins awards, but perhaps his work in movies such as The Lion King and the biopic about his life called Rocketman have continued to fuel his sales.
One awesome aspect about his career was his long residency (11 years so far) at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. You know that made him some serious cash. Billboard ranked him as the most successful male solo artist and 3rd place overall, only behind Madonna and The Beatles (both on this list). He's released 30 studio albums, let alone his collaborations, greatest hits, and soundtracks.
Trivia Facts: Sir Elton John's middle name is Hercules. He was born as Reginald Kenneth Dwight. He's was knighted in 1998 for his services to music and charitable services. He's performed at many royal events at Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace.
#3 - Michael Jackson
Certified Sales: 232 million
Nobody needs an introduction to Michael Jackson, the King of Pop. He's easily the greatest entertainer of all time and one of the most influential humans of the 20th century. From the Jackson 5 to his solo career, he literally spent his entire life making some of the best music to ever be recorded, leading to him being the most-awarded musician of all time.
Jackson's album Thriller remains the best-selling album of all time (if you don't count the one greatest hits album that beats it). Before his run ended, his wealth was so staggering that he owned The Beatles catalog, was being sued and accused of everything under the sun constantly, and his concerts were spectacles the likes have never been achieved since.
Trivia Facts: Michael Jackson's estate still brings in around $825 million a year, the highest amount for any celebrity of any kind. He once won 8 Grammys in one ceremony, tied for the record with the band Santana. During the Thriller years he had the highest royalty rate in the music industry at $2 per sale.
#2 - Elvis Presley
Certified Sales: 225.7 million
Elvis Presley is similar to Michael Jackson is many ways. They called him the King of Rock and Roll and is also considered one of the most important cultural icons of the 20th century. His output was monumental, including 24 studio albums, 17 soundtracks, and starring in 33 Hollywood films in 25 years.
He holds the record for the most songs to chart in Billboard's top 40 (115 songs) and their top 100 (152 songs). He has 25 multi-platinum records, and 101 gold albums (the all-time record). The man even has a spider named after him, the Paradonea presleyi. The upper bound of his sales estimates reach 1 billion.
Trivia Facts: Elvis Presley was drafted into military service in 1958 at the height of his career. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom posthumously in 2018. His home Graceland became the 2nd most visited home in the US after the White House. It's a National Historic Landmark since 2006.
#1 - The Beatles
Certified Sales: 279.8 Million
The Beatles were only active as a band from 1960 to 1970, yet hold the clear lead as the best-selling artists of all time. If you add in their solo material, nobody will ever beat them. A huge part of their success was leading the "British Invasion" of British pop and rock into the United States. Their art evolved with each release as did their controversies.
They hold all the awards, have starred in films, broke many records, and one of their songs is the most covered ever. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting duo will likely never be topped. Beyond the pop appeal, they were truly some of the best musicians to ever walk the earth. They're so good that kids these days think it's cool to dislike them.
Trivia Facts: Since 2001, the date of January 16th is recognized as World Beatles Day under UNESCO. There are 5 asteroids named after each band member and the band itself. Eric Clapton was almost the Fifth Beatle at one time.
Runners Up: Who's Almost a Best-Selling Artist of All Time?
What fun is only listing the top 10 when we can quickly tack on a handful of runners up? They're so close to breaking into the main list that we have to do them the justice of mentioning them. Below this we also another handful in a quick list so you can follow the rankings well into the 20's if you want.
Certified Sales: 171.9 Million
Mariah Carey is known as the Songbird Supreme for good reason. She has an unbelievable five octave vocal range and can reach the whistle register, which very few can do. From her very first album, she's been breaking records and consistently winning with every release. Funnily, a huge part of her success has been her main Christmas single running up the charts year after year.
Many music companies and fans all consider her to be the greatest voice in music ever. Her sales prove it. She holds the record for the most number-one singles by a solo artist. Her first 5 singles all reached number one on the charts. And her first album topped the charts for 11 consecutive weeks. Not much has changed since then!
Trivia Facts: If you ask Mariah Carey, she'll tell you that she's an alto, but music critics and professionals give her the label of a Coloratura soprano. She says she can reach her highest notes due to polyps on her vocal cords. Her Christmas song "All I Want for Christmas is You" is nearly the quintessential song for the season now.
Certified Sales: 149.9 Million
In an original 9 year run starting in 1971, The Eagles made an incredible impact. All of their albums had several high-performing singles but rarely reaching the number-one spot. But their consistency has led to their greatest hits album being the highest-selling album of all time, with their album Hotel California being the third best-selling.
In 1994, they reformed and released an album with new material and live recordings, released a documentary, and started a huge tour, so it only stands that they'll continue to push their sales further. Their blend of R&B, soul, bluegrass, and rock reached the masses and continues to touch hearts and minds today.
Trivia Facts: One member of The Eagles was fired from the group after demanding a higher percentage of the group's profits instead of the even 5-way split they'd had since day one. He later sued for other reasons as revenge and tried to get $50 million in damages. The judge dismissed the case outright.
Certified Sales: 147.6 Million
Queen will undoubtedly keep climbing the list. They started in 1970 and are still creating music and touring today, albeit with a new vocalist. Freddy Mercury was a huge part of their success, but their new singers are great as well. Their pop rock and arena rock music is well-received, so much so that many of us are coming to dislike some of their most popular songs since they still get played too much.
Their songs are so powerful that they've become go-to anthems for fans in sports stadiums. They've won all the awards, done some of the best movie soundtracks ever (like for the awesome Flash Gordon film and Highlander), and have had a biographical movie created about the band. That's when you know you've hit the big time.
Trivia Facts: Since 2004, they've been touring again under the name "Queen+" with Paul Rodgers and Adam Lambert as their vocalists. Though they've recorded 15 studio albums, they've had 21 tours of concerts. They even have a musical based on their music.
Certified Sales: 136 Million
Whiney Houston remains the most awarded female artist of all time. She's the first and only musician to have 7 singles in a row all reach number-one on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart. Her transition into acting was a great move, because she also created the soundtrack for The Bodyguard which is one of the best-selling records of all time.
Like others, she was given an honorific nickname or two, known as The Voice in the music industry and sometimse the Queen of Pop. She's in pretty much every list of the best singers ever and her pleasant mezzo-soprano range doesn't hurt. She's probably named as an influence by other artists more than anyone else, too.
Trivia Facts: When she passed on at an early age, fans mourned internationally. We honored her life with many documentaries and biographical films and she kept stacking up even more awards posthumously, further entrenching her record in that regard.
Honorable Mentions for the Best-Selling Artists of All Time
There are so many great artists on this list that we just didn't feel right capping it off without providing a quick run-down of another grouping who are all really close to breaking into the top 10 (and some most likely will over time). I'm sure you can guess which will do it:
- Celine Dion is a wonderful Pop vocalist who's achieved 131.1 million sales thus far.
- AC/DC has reached 123.8 million sales thanks to their wide audience in the Hard Rock and Blues Rock genres.
- The Rolling Stones also work in the Rock and Blues Rock genres, pushing 100 million certified units thus far.
- Garth Brooks is a Country mega-star, proving his mass appeal by reaching 164.1 million units sold.
- Drake exploded on the Hip-Hop, R&B, and Pop scene, quickly selling 312.3 million certified units and growing every year.
- Ed Sheeran is the British Pop and Folk Pop star that took the world by storm, helping him sell 184.1 million units.
- Justin Bieber is a household name now and the current king of Pop, boasting 171.3 million sales so far.
- Billy Joel has been in the music industry for decades in the Pop and Rock genres, reaching 118.4 million sales and going on countless tours.
- U2 are the arena Rock giants that put on an amazing show, and that has led them to reaching 110.3 million certified units sold.
Following the list any further than this gets less interesting, especially since the names become less well known and they have such a long way to go to crack into even the top 20, so we'll stop there. I hope they can do it though since a little shake-up is always fun news.
The crazy thing about all of this are these are either bands with real musical skill or vocalists that, to be frank, aren't remotely on the same level of talent as the others. They don't even qualify as one of the top 10 best singers of all time, but they're getting all of the sales, fame, and money. What a world we live in.