How do Elvis, Bing Crosby and Mariah fare if you take Spotify’s data into consideration? We’ve rewritten the record books to take account of modern listening habits
The music industry, traditionally, has been built on measurements. It used to measure physical sales - the charts - but that has evolved into a new series of metrics. As well as physical sales, you might judge an artist’s popularity by their streaming numbers, their social media stats, their YouTube followers or live ticket sales.
What’s certain is that what defined an artist as popular, say, 40 years ago, is no longer an accurate measurement. What’s equally true is that the old record-books no longer hold the sway they once did, because of the changes to measurements and also the changes to music consumption and listening habits. The list of the biggest-selling records of all time is a product of a bygone age, and a new way of calibrating those figures is needed.
We wanted to see how the old world would look, refracted through the new. So we asked Spotify to do some number crunching for us. First, we asked them to look at the all-time top 20 selling singles (as listed on Wikipedia) and rerank them according to the numbers of streams (the figures were correct as of the end of February). We also asked for Spotify’s all time top 20 most streamed tracks.
So what do the lists tell us?
There is no crossover between the most-streamed tracks and the bestselling tracks. None whatsoever. The most-streamed tracks all come from the past decade, which reflects the promotion those tracks get on Spotify and social media, and that they are consumed by a young fanbase. It’s notable that all 20 tracks are big pop records; the list reads like a Radio 1 playlist. The figures are probably also skewed by the fact that the big beasts of rock - the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC - took such a suspicious attitude to streaming for so long, keeping their music off the service.
The all-time bestselling list, when reranked by streaming numbers, shows a massive boost for those songs that have become hardy perennials - power ballads and Christmas hits. Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas Is You moves from No 14 on the sales list to No 1 on the streaming list, with nearly twice as many streams as anything else. Nos 2, 3, 4 and 5 are taken up by a run of big ballads from between 20 and 30 years ago.
Pop’s impermanence is heavily signposted. Only three of the top 10 in the reranked bestsellers list - White Christmas, a seasonal staple, plus You’re the One That I Want and I Wanna Hold Your Hand - are more than 30 years old. Maybe when the rest of the top 10 stop being radio staples, they’ll stop getting the streams, too.
The all-time bestsellers fall way behind the most popular current hits on Spotify. Mariah Carey’s tally of 114m streams sounds pretty good until you realise that it’s not enough to get her in the all-time Spotify top 20. Bear in mind that Major Lazer’s Lean On chalked up 540m streams last year alone. This emphasis on the current is only going to get stronger as the number of people streaming rises; for most people, streaming services are not a boundless back catalogue of delightful obscurities, they’re a chance to programme one’s own radio station of current hits.
The all-time top 20 selling singles, reranked by streaming numbers
- (No.14 on all-time singles chart) Mariah Carey - All I Want for Christmas Is You (113,898,731 streams)
- (No.7) Whitney Houston - I Will Always Love You (67,756,710)
- (No.13) Celine Dion - My Heart Will Go On (50,443,976)
- (No.16) Scorpions - Wind of Change (42,975,143)
- (No.12) Bryan Adams - (Everything I Do) I Do It for You (39,287,271)
- (No.1) Bing Crosby - White Christmas (35,548,184)
- (No.11) John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John - You’re the One That I Want (26,673,010)
- (No.2) Elton John - Candle in the Wind 1997 (18,838,214)
- (No.4) Mungo Jerry - In the Summertime (14,378,863)
- (No.20) The Beatles - I Want to Hold Your Hand (10,455,054)
- (No.15) Gloria Gaynor - I Will Survive (7,234,495)
- (No.5) Bill Haley & His Comets - Rock Around the Clock (7,229,298)
- (No.8) Elvis Presley - It’s Now or Never (5,932,313)
- (No.19) Gene Autry - Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (5,096,989)
- (No.3) Bing Crosby - Silent Night (2,792,135)
- (No.6) Domenico Modugno - Nel blu dipinto di blu (Volare) (2,298,468)
- (No.17) Kyu Sakamoto - Sukiyaki (1,635,302)
- (No.18) Trio - Da Da Da (1,077,628)
- (No.10) The Ink Spots - If I Didn’t Care (943,828)
- (No.9) USA for Africa - We Are the World (521,026 )
Spotify’s all-time top 20 most streamed tracks
- Major Lazer - Lean On
- Ed Sheeran- Thinking Out Loud
- Omi - Cheerleader (Felix Jaehn vs Salaam Remi Remix)
- Justin Bieber - What Do You Mean?
- Mark Ronson - Uptown Funk
- Justin Bieber - Sorry
- Hozier - Take Me to Church
- The Weeknd - Can’t Feel My Face
- Wiz Khalifa - See You Again (feat Charlie Puth)
- Skrillex - Where Are Ü Now (feat. Justin Bieber)
- Sam Smith - Stay With Me
- Ellie Goulding - Love Me Like You Do
- Clean Bandit - Rather Be
- Sia - Chandelier
- Imagine Dragons - Radioactive
- Avicii - Wake Me Up
- John Legend - All of Me
- Passenger - Let Her Go
- Pharrell Williams - Happy
- Maroon 5 - Sugar