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The Beatles in 1965. Source: Wikipedia

Elvis Presley is widely hailed as the King of Rock and Roll, but in 1966 John Lennon said the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus" in a London Evening Standard interview.

Based on record sales, this Wikipedia article and this Business Insider article of top music acts would certainly seem to bear that out (but Wiki has the caveat that several mega-artists are not included in their list).

Elvis may always be the King, but the Beatles outsold him considerably, and may well have been "more popular than Jesus" with the popular culture youth in the 1960's. But has any music act in modern history (20th to 21st centuries) ever been bigger than the Beatles (worldwide, in number of recordings sold, on any and all media including wax, vinyl, tape, CD, and digital downloads)?

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    Is this worldwide or just the U.S.? – KillingTime Nov 19 '18 at 21:49
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    If you're going purely on (verified) sales, doesn't the Wikipedia article answer the question? – KillingTime Nov 19 '18 at 21:53
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    What is a "record"? What is "sold"? Seriously. – Aaron Brick Nov 19 '18 at 22:07
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    @Jos The original question didn't specify 'worldwide', it was edited in response to my comment, perhaps you should read the edit history before you comment. – KillingTime Nov 20 '18 at 5:55
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    I feel the inclusion of the Jesus comparison is irrelevant to the question (which boils down to "has any music act in modern history ever been bigger than the Beatles"). As can be seen by JMS' answer, it is positively distracting. – DevSolar Nov 20 '18 at 10:07
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Has any music act ever topped the Beatles in sales?

There is probably only one likely contender - Elvis Presley - but it is highly unlikely that we'll ever know for sure.


COUNTING PROBLEMS

There are numerous problems in arriving at a total, not least of which is how sales of albums and singles are counted. Should one album sale be equivalent to one single sale, or to the six, eight, ten or even twelve singles that can fit on one album?

Also, how does one count the numerous multi-artist compilation albums that include one (or maybe several) songs from the Beatles or Elvis Presley (or whoever else one is trying to tally the sales of)?

And how can one be sure of numbers when some record companies refuse to release sales figures, while others may well be inflating numbers for publicity reasons?

These are just a few of the problems...


THE NUMBERS

Of the more than 30 sites I've looked at which give estimates, very few cite any sources or explain how the numbers they quote were arrived at. For what they are worth, here are some examples (roughly from highest estimates to lowest).

The Beatles: 1.6 billion singles sold in the US + 600 million albums worldwide. Source: Beatles by the Numbers. These numbers are also given by cbsnews.com (2014). Of all the numbers cited, this 1.6 billion US singles is the most suspect. Even 1.6 billion units worldwide would be hard to believe.

Elvis Presley: 1.5 billion, according to Sony BMG (circa 2016). Source: For The Billionth And The Last Time : Lifting the Lid on the King's record sales. The author of this article disputes this figure.

Elvis Presley: "sales of Presley records have passed that coveted one billion milestone" (2016). Source: For The Billionth And The Last Time : Lifting the Lid on the King's record sales

The Beatles: Over one billion discs and tapes (EMI estimate, March 2001). Elvis Presley: 1 billion sales worldwide. Sources: Best-selling group and Best-selling solo artist

Elvis Presley: 1.1 billion, Bing Crosby: 900 million. Source: The Elvis presley - Bing Crosby Comparison Page

Michael Jackson: 1 billion (Dec 2015). Source: Michael Jackson's 'Thriller' First Ever 30X Multi-Platinum RIAA Certification

Bing Crosby: "close to one billion records, tapes, compact discs and digital downloads around the world." Source: Bing by the Numbers. His Amazing Music Records

The Beatles: 545 million units worldwide (October 1972). Source: Beatles Record Sales Around The World

The Beatles: 405,737,000 as of Mar 2017, Michael Jackson: 323,741,000 (as of Sep 2017), Elvis Presley: 314,044,000 (as of Sep 2018). All figures are in EAS (equivalent album sales). Source: Chartmasters. This site says that the numbers for some artists haven't been calculated yet, which probably explains why Garth Brooks is nowhere to be seen.

The Beatles: 257.7 million, Elvis Presley: 206.8 million. Source: Top-selling artists worldwide from 1954 to 2016, based on certified sales (in millions). Note: this site does give a source but it is hidden behind a paywall.


ALSO OF INTEREST

The article Who was the world's biggest music act of all time? presents an interesting interactive graphic which allows one to modify different parameters when calculating sales (e.g. value of albums versus singles). Most combinations put the Beatles on top, but when singles and album sales are both counted as one sale, Elvis Presley sometimes heads the list.

The article Is Elvis the Biggest Selling Recording Artist? - Sorting Out Records Sales Stats & RIAA Rules provides a sharp critique of the RIAA and argues strongly that Elvis Presley is several hundred million ahead of the Beatles. The authors present a convincing case in parts, but they are also connected to RCA records (Presley's main record label) and, at the same as saying we should stop arguing about who has sold the most records, insist that Elvis comes out top.

The article Did "Thriller" really sell a hundred million copies presents some interesting insights on how sales are miscounted.

The article Who was bigger: Elvis Presley or The Beatles? says that the Beatles outsold Elvis Presley in the US and then claims that:

When figuring sales of singles, EPs and albums worldwide, many historians believe that Elvis is the best-selling artist period.

However, it gives no sources and I haven't found anything to confirm this. In fact, Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Volume 1 mentions

The Beatles' unprecedented commercial success

  • Thank you Lars! Great info! I'm curious about the Bing Crosby stats... Huffington Post said "Crosby had 43 number-one hits — more than the Beatles and Elvis put together. His career total of record sales tops one billion albums sold, making him the most popular singer ever. “White Christmas” alone has sold more than one-hundred million copies and is the all-time best-selling single." ... (cont'd) ... – Kerry L Nov 30 '18 at 20:51
  • Also PBS said: "Bing Crosby scored 41 No. 1 records (43 including the second and third chart-toppings of “White Christmas”) — more than The Beatles (24) and Elvis Presley (18). His recordings reached the charts 396 times, more than Frank Sinatra (209) and Elvis Presley (149) combined. Bing’s closest rival is Paul Whiteman (220) with whose orchestra he sang early in his career. Bing’s records hit the Top 10 203 times and spent 173 weeks in the No. 1 spot." ... (cont'd) – Kerry L Nov 30 '18 at 20:52
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    (cont'd) ... and just for fun, Town Topics has a fun article on Bing and the Beatles (Bing was quick to tip his hat to both Elvis and the Beatles - he was very magnanimous ... I miss Bing!) :-) – Kerry L Nov 30 '18 at 20:54
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    @KerryL I think the Bing Crosby figures are more suspicious than most for a number of reasons. The market was much smaller for most of his career - population, people owning a player, limited international sales. Also, album sales didn't really start to take off until the late 1950s (later outside the US) so 1 billion album sales is really suspect, even by music industry standards. Finally, there is general agreement on 50 million + sales of 'White Christmas' (it's also the figure cited by Guinness) so 100 million also looks very suspect. – Lars Bosteen Dec 1 '18 at 0:37
  • Seems reasonable - except Bing’s sales didn’t stop when he ended recording. They continue to this day (also true for the Beatles and the King) :-) – Kerry L Dec 1 '18 at 4:33

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