To detail the best-selling musicians of all time by album sales, it’s helpful to first take a look at the music business — which isn’t what it used to be.
Long gone are the days when an artist could put out an album or CD and fans would rush to the store to buy a copy — and obsessively study the artwork and liner notes. That model, much to the chagrin of many musicians, ended in the late 1990s with the advent of streaming services that enabled people to download individual songs for free or a nominal price. While common now, this was a big deal at the time.
If you’re too young to remember this cultural milestone, Google “Napster and Metallica.” The heavy metal band’s drummer, Lars Ulrich, led the charge against Napster, a pioneering file-sharing internet service that allowed people to share digital musical files for free. Metallica sued Napster in 2000, alleging copyright infringement and racketeering. For a while, Ulrich became the much-maligned poster boy for greedy rock stars, but the courts ruled in Metallica’s favor and Napster eventually filed bankruptcy.
But by then the genie was out of the bottle.
Other file-sharing services popped up and today people consume and download music, videos, and other media through iTunes and a host of other companies. This has caused album sales to plummet. But on the other hand, a tween without any album sales or experience performing live can now put out a music video or song and become an instant star (We’re looking at you, Justin Beiber).
Indeed, the musical landscape is vastly different from the heydays of the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s, when vinyl and CD sales peaked. This helps explain why the best-selling artists, as outlined below according to the Recording Industry Association of America’s certified U.S. album sales, all rose to prominence decades ago. But even as musical tastes and styles have changed, these acts have remained popular across multiple generations.
The following are the best-selling artists of all time...