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Which record is the best-selling of all time has long been a matter of some dispute and the real numbers of records sold is mired in a mixture of official certification and guesswork.
At first sight it seems easy enough to work out. Just add up how many have been sold, right? Well, yeah. But back in the day, when trade was largely a cash economy, any amount of records were sold without being recorded. We just handed over our cash, the store owner put it in their pocket and no-one was the wiser.
The only record of those sales are from record companies who you’d think knew how many copies they’d shipped to shops, wholesalers and distributors. But again, back in the day, this was a less rigorously policed system.
Finding an accurate number isn’t helped by the fact that record companies would often ship a million copies of an album and declare it to be a million-seller, when it wasn’t. It was a million shipper. A lot of those might end up being returned if sold on sale-or-return, which they usually would be. Others would just sit unsold in a warehouse for years before having the corner snipped off and sold cheap as cut-outs. Do we count those reduced price sales?
Well, yes, we should, but they would often be sold in all manner of weird places. I got such records from Callers Travel in Newcastle - a travel agent who, yes, actually sold records as well. I got them in Debenhams department store, who didn’t have a record department but did have a few racks of US cut-outs in the corner of the basement. Every few weeks it would get new stock of records by Elephants Memory, Ohio Players, The Guess Who and many more bands for whom supply vastly exceeded demand.
I would even buy records from a wire rack stand in the local newsagents, again sold for pennies. Where they came from, who knew? The sales from such places were never logged in any way. Why would they be?
So any numbers we see for records pre-90s are substantially guesswork. There are officially certified sales - though how rigorously those numbers are analysed and by whom, remains opaque. And there are ‘claimed’ figures. Where those come from is even less clear.
Worse still, these days, albums do not even exist as a physical product and the songs from what were once albums can all be bought as individual downloads or streams. So how are those counted? If you buy four songs off a six song album does that count as an album sale?
Also, the best-seller lists usually just address sales in Europe, Australia and North America, forgetting that India and China are huge countries with a massive population. Brazil likewise.
In fact, when you look at the best selling albums in each country, it reveals how popular locally produced music often is over and above globally well-known artists. It also shows that taste is not uniform across the world.
So even bearing all these factors in mind let’s look at some countries' record sales.
The UK’s best selling album is Queen’s Greatest Hits, released in 1981 it’s now sold at least 6.6 million copies. Second is that car boot fave, Abba Gold: Greatest Hits with 5.7 million sales and third is the Beatles Sgt Pepper.
In the USA the top 3 are 1. The Eagles Greatest Hits - 38 million, 2. Michael Jackson Thriller 33 million and 3. The Eagles - Hotel California 26 million. ACDC are a close 4th with 25 million sales of Back In Black.
Argentina: 1. Luis Miguel - Romance 960,000 2. Guns N' Roses - Use Your Illusion II 720,00 3. Luis Miguel - Romances 660,000
Australia: 1. Meat Loaf - Bat Out Of Hell 1,750,000. 2. John Farnham - Whispering Jack 1,680,000 3. Shania Twain - Come on Over 1,260,000
Brazil’s best seller is ‘Músicas para Louvar ao Senhor by Father Marcelo Rossi which has sold 3,328,468. Michael Jackson’s Thriller tops Canada’s list selling 2,455,000
China’s top seller is Light by Xiao Zhan and has shifted 36,236,107 copies! One of the world’s most popular albums but not heard outside of China.
France’s best seller ever is Celine Dion’s D'eux Diamond which has sold 4,235,000. In Germany it’s Mensch by Herbert Grönemeyer which has racked up 3.15 million with Phil Collins ...But Seriously just 150,000 sales behind.
India's top three are all huge sellers again, not heard very widely. 1. Young Tarang - Nazia and Zoheb 40,000,000 2 Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge - Jatin–Lalit 25,000,000 3. Aashiqui Nadeem – Shravan 20,000,000. There is no western music in India’s top 10 all of which have sold over 11 million.
In Ireland it’s The Corrs who top the list with Talk on Corners having sold 300,000 copies. Abba Gold tops the Swiss listings with half a million sales.
When we include ‘claimed’ worldwide sales Thriller is declared the winner with 66 million units , though it is clear that absolutely no-one has any accurate idea how many copies have sold. Tied for 2nd place are Bat Out Of Hell and Back In Black with 50 million estimated and Dark Side Of The Moon comes in with 45 million.
It makes you wonder that if no-one really knows how many copies have sold, how can the royalties be paid with an accuracy to the artists involved?Oh, one last thing. I'd love to know which is the best selling album when secondhand sales are added in. Impossible to know for sure, of course, but in UK, anecdotally, it is widely assumed to be Rumours by Fleetwood Mac which is the biggest second hand seller.