The following evaluation draws from an analysis of data compiled on Wikipedia’s ‘List of best-selling music artists’ page, as well as Wikipedia’s pages for the discographies of Rihanna and Beyoncé.
All three pages cite many credible primary sources including Billboard, Spin Magazine, the RIAA Database, AllMusic, and recording industry databases of dozens of countries including Australia, Denmark, Japan, Poland, and Sweden. The following are links to each page:
List of best-selling music artists
You probably have some names in mind off the top of your head: Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Beatles, whatever. And out of today’s more active artists, you’re probably thinking, “Yeah, I’m sure Beyoncé is stomping on the heads of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston on her way to the top-10.”
Well slooow down there. Here’s some perspective for you:
- Beyoncé, who’s first solo project was released in 2003, has sold 100 million records and released six studio albums in her solo career.
- Rihanna, who’s first project was released in 2005, has sold (UPDATE 6/19/2019) 250 million records and released eight studio albums.
For the sake of fairness, let’s also consider the numbers Destiny’s Child put up in the case of Beyoncé’s record sales. The trio sold 60 million records off of four studio albums. Being the leader of the group, let’s call it fair to add those four albums and 60 million records to Beyoncé’s tally (160 million records, 10 albums). Still, surprisingly, Rihanna has her soundly beat in records sold with fewer albums.
How? Why? Does it matter?
Let’s try to put these numbers in context.
For starters, “records” include sales and downloads of singles, albums, and music videos. Selling a single is a “record” sale as much as selling an album is. In the streaming age, Billboard and the RIAA agree 150 streams of a single equates to a record sale. For albums, the equivalent number of streams depends on how they were paid for. Subscription-supported streams (i.e. you pay Spotify) count more than ad-supported (i.e. free) streams.
Tracking down each sale of a single or album, even in the age of algorithms, is difficult and contains a margin of error. This is why the “Claimed sales” category on Wikipedia’s list has much different numbers than the “Total available certified units” category.
The impact of digitally-consumed music has made sales claims more accurate over the years. For instance, the claimed sales of Madonna, Elton John, and Led Zeppelin are all at least 100 million records higher than the total certified units for each act:
But look at the claimed-to-certified ratio of artists who started releasing records in the 2000s, and it’s clear that the estimates are more accurate. Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, and Adele all have claimed sales estimates within 20 million of the total certified units each artist has:
This realization makes the splits between the solo sales of Rihanna and Beyoncé even more eye-opening:
But, but…Rihanna really got it like that on Beyoncé? What explanation is there for this other than Rihanna just has more of the juice than we thought?
Charts favor Rihanna, critics favor Beyoncé
While Beyoncé has the kind of star-power to overshadow acts as big as Coldplay and Bruno Mars at the Super Bowl—and even Rihanna herself on her special night at this year’s MTV VMAs—Rihanna has had a pop focus to her music for much longer. An article on Rolling Stone comparing the trajectories of the two in 2011 provided a lot of insight into each artist’s direction.
Rihanna and Beyoncé are known to make songs for the club, but the pop/dance lane has defined Rihanna significantly more than it has Beyoncé. This is especially true when you consider the number of singles, as well as the types of singles, Rihanna has topped the charts with. Rihanna has an overwhelming 32 RIAA-certified platinum singles in her career, while Beyoncé has a relatively modest 12. In fact, Rihanna has more singles that are triple-platinum or greater than Beyoncé has platinum singles (14). She’s the only artist ever with more than 100 million RIAA-certified singles sold, and it weighs heavily in her total sales.
As said in the aforementioned Rolling Stone article, Beyoncé has always shown more of a focus on cohesive projects than chart-toppers. Her 2011 release 4 was a noticeable departure from any obvious attempts at dominating the charts, with one single meeting lukewarm critical reception (“Run The World”), and another being an R&B ballad (“Best Thing I Never Had”). Simply put, Beyoncé hasn’t cared to take advantage of digital music consumption for as long or as aggressively as Rihanna has. The trade off has been better albums and a stronger reputation as an artist.
Since 4, each successive Beyoncé album has been met with greater critical reception. Her most recent work Lemonade was one of the biggest snubs in GRAMMYs history for Album of the Year (as admitted by Adele), was nominated for multiple Emmys, and did it all without a top-5 single. Her evolution has been phenomenal. The trade-off of this evolution is that her content has stopped being tailored to compete with easy-to-spin records like “We Found Love,” “Don’t Stop The Music,” or “This Is What You Came For.”
Queen of Streaming
It also helps to note that Rihanna’s rise into pop stardom coincided with the rise of digital music consumption. Whereas many of Beyoncé’s early attempts at chart dominance happened with Destiny’s Child and the early 2000s, pretty much all of Rihanna’s singles have been immediately available on popular streaming and/or digital sales platforms.
The power of online music platforms plus Rihanna’s reach into the dance/electro-pop world casts her net a lot wider when it comes to the influence of her singles. In an era of rabid digital consumption, having people play just a couple of your songs from an album on repeat, or racking up numbers selling that one single on iTunes goes a long way in making an artist a commercially powerhouse.
So really Beyoncé is better…right?
As discussed in my article on the Drake-Kendrick Lamar and Michael Jackson-Prince rivalries, mass appeal carries more weight in the evaluation of an artist than people like to admit. But unlike those two rivalries, the respective star powers of Rihanna and Beyoncé are on the same playing field.
Comparing Rihanna and Beyoncé is always fun. Two female artists with the magnitudes of Rihanna and Beyoncé coexisting is bound to make people pit them against each other. But for as much as there is to compare, there’s a lot about their paths to reconsider.
For one, Beyoncé has been on the scene for a while longer. Setting out on a more personally fulfilling journey with her music is something she can safely do given the stripes she’s earned with Destiny’s Child and her first few albums. In defense of Rihanna’s lack of critical acclaim relative to Beyoncé, ANTI was her strongest attempt at not making music for the radio, an even better effort than Rated R (credit to commenter Jeremiah). Where many might have seen ANTI‘s lack of successful singles as a letdown—though “Work” topped the charts—Rihanna’s current situation isn’t unlike Beyoncé’s leading up to Lemonade.
It’s hard to tell if any artist of this generation will mean as much socially as Beyoncé. But off the strength of the bold and daring ANTI, along with the new heights and lifestyle she’s seeing as the Fenty boss, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Rihanna add much more to her musical reputation. Folks been ready for more.
UPDATE (7/6/2019): I’m almost certain Beyoncé is sitting on an updated sales number we haven’t gotten yet. The difference of 150 million is based on claimed sales as they stand. Whatever the number is, the point remains: Rih is a much more dominant commercial force in music than many fans think.
UPDATE (3/2/2020): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Beyoncé has released 7 solo studio albums. The statement has been corrected to say she has 6 solo albums.
UPDATE (10/6/2020): Edited for structure and clarity
[…] only the leading but the sole Black female artist with indubitable cultural clout (especially as Rihanna, the only other Black female artist in recent times to match her clout, is currently more occupied […]
[…] Rihanna has sold 150 million more records than Beyoncé (as of 2019) via […]
[…] The following evaluation draws from an analysis of data compiled on Wikipedia’s ‘List of best-selling music artists’ page, as well as Wikipedia’s pages for the discographies of Rihanna and Beyoncé. via […]
This is because Rihanna’ s music style has more widely target audiences than Beyonce but Beyonce’ s music style is more unique and not boring. Also, Beyonce’ s music are more likely crated underlie her identity daring and focusing more on expressing her thought and attitude instead of creating work for only pampering market.
Considering that Rihanna comes from a small island in the Caribbean with few resources it is amazing to see what Rihanna did with what she is working with.
The girl has a lot of Billboard Top 10 hits.
Rihanna was a little girl living in a different country by herself.
A lot of artists have one of their parents as their managers (Usher, Brandy, Beyonce, and more). Rihanna did not have her parent with her.
Rihanna had to adapt to another country, another culture and a cruel industry. Living in the Caribbean and living in the USA are two different things.
Rihanna deserves much respect and everyone knows it.
What is amazing about Rihanna is that she is a truly confident woman.
Pure support for Robyn Rihanna Fenty
Favourite Rihanna albums: Rated R, Loud, and Talk That Talk.
Hopefully a new Rihanna album drops soon.
Oh yah, did you see the article that The Dream spoke on where he mentions Beyonce asking him to create her record to sound more like Rihanna? Google it
I read your article and checked Billboard and RIAA for Rihanna’s album sales, apparently she has so far sold over 23million album in the US, however, in the wikipedia page it did indeed say she has sold over 200M albums in the US alone. IS there a way we can verify which is correct? We all know wikipedia can be edited. Has she really sold over 200M albums in the US alone?
Thank you for the questions, Ares. These statistics can be confusing.
An important distinction to make is that a “record” can be a single as well as an album. Rihanna excels in hit singles. The Billboard and RIAA numbers for her US album sales are accurate, but so are the numbers counting her global single sales. Considering she has 32 platinum singles in the US (14 of which have sold 3 million or more copies), it’s clear the majority of Rihanna’s 250 million figure is rooted in singles.
I know this wasn’t your question, but for anyone else who may read this: selling singles is not inherently easier than selling an album. There are artists in the streaming era who have become exceptional at it, but to make one song appealing enough to be purchased or streamed at that rate is a tall task given how much content there is to compete with.
Because of your question, Ares, I will be editing this piece to further clarify the difference between a “record,” “single,” and “album” so the feats of Rihanna and Beyoncé are put in an accurate light. Thank you for reading all the way from the UAE!
Thanks for the reply!
Actually Im still confused wit how the system works right now. Others would argue that its easier to chart records nowadays than 3 or 4 decades ago – others would say it was harder to sell before. For example – artists before would have to really release and a single to be charted as single, and albums is considered the sale of a whole compilation, and radio and music video airplay (if any) wasn’t included in the sales figures. However, now, if you check (for example) Taylor Swift’s numbers, whenever she releases an album, all singles would chart in Hot100 just because of streaming plays – that why she (and a lot of the contemporary artists now) has considerable gained a lot of Hot 100 singles entry.
I was just asking because I was kind of puzzled to see Rihanna being the second top selling female artist – and almost reaching the numbers of Madonna who has been in the industry far longer than she has. Is selling a single equals 1 unit of sales from the 250million figure or how many single sales and video airplays is considered 1 unit? Look Im even confused with my own question, lol! Dont get me wrong, I love Rihanna, and I believe she has worked hard to achieve the accolades shes getting.
No worries, this is confusing stuff. Yes, some people would argue it was harder to sell records pre-streaming. Streaming makes passive consumption of music easier and gives albums more of a commercial boost through successful singles. That being said, some perspective:
Per Billboard, 150 streams (audio or video) = 1 single sale. 1500 streams = 10 track sales = 1 album sale.
First, note it isn’t a 1:1 ratio. It’s much smaller. A billion streams is not a billion sales. Secondly, while equivalent record sales power the success of artists like Swift and Rihanna, it comes with a severe drop in physical album sales and digital downloads of singles. Prior to the emergence of giant streaming platforms, sales in the music industry were on a steep decline last decade. It’s only just now recovering.
The desire of consumers to purchase physical albums was enormous prior to the advent of Limewire, Napster, and other hubs for free mp3 downloads. The best-selling album of all time is Michael Jackson’s Thriller, with roughly 66 million sales. The best-selling single of all time is Elton John’s Candle In The Wind 1997, which has sold 33 million copies.
You may say these numbers are outliers. But the number of artists with singles that regularly outpace their album sales is a minority in the music industry. When you talk about the best-selling artists, their total single sales outpace their album sales mainly because they have many more singles than albums. Ex: Madonna has sold roughly 300 million records globally. The split between album and single sales is almost 50/50 (134 million to 166 million)
People greatly underestimate the difficulty of selling a single.
Speakerboxx/The Love Below is Atlanta duo OutKast’s best-selling album. 11x platinum (11,000,000 copies sold), diamond certification. However, the best-selling single on the album, “Hey Ya!”, only went platinum. Even if we count YouTube views for the video (477 million) which unfortunately became available 6 years after the album dropped, we’d be adding 3.18 million single sales (477 million divided by 150). At most, we can count “Hey Ya!” as a 4x RIAA-platinum single. Once again, Speakerboxx/The Love Below sold 11 million copies. Almost all of them pure sales.
The accessibility of streaming is great, but people assume everything else about the music industry has remained the same. In a world where a. we’re flooded with content, b. not actually buying our favorite albums and singles, and c. anyone with a part-time job and a wifi connection can distribute music on the same platforms as major label artists, creating an experience out of one song is a huge feat.
The summary of this comment: selling physical albums in the pre-streaming world was more viable than many people think. Selling a single is much harder than people think. For this reason, any elite commercial artist of the streaming era deserves praise.
Great article! I wanted to ask why you think it is that despite Rihanna’s huge success with singles, this hasn’t translate into a huge blockbuster album? For instance after Good Girl Gone Bad she was an undeniable superstar, but Rated R then debuted at #4 with a relatively modest 181k in its first week. To date her best-selling debut week is 238k with Unapologetic, which pales in comparison to her peers like Beyoncé and especially Adele and Taylor Swift. It seems rather odd that while churning hit single after hit single this never translated into similar commercial success with her albums, and I was wondering what you made of this?
Thanks for the comment, Alex!
I don’t think I’m the person to ask, but based on the research done for this piece plus my perception of each artist’s public image as a pop consumer, I don’t think Rihanna has ever been marketed as an “album artist” the same way Taylor Swift or veteran Beyoncé has. On par with the sales trend you pointed out, ANTI debuted at #1 with a “humble” first week of 166k copies.
ANTI was such a big deal for Rihanna because she didn’t care to make an immediately resonant club smash for once. Of course, “Work” was infectious, but she was her full Barbadian self, not a glammed-up Calvin Harris collaborator.
Rih’s core fans, the Navy, fully understand Rihanna’s breadth and talent, but I don’t think Rih’s full artistry has been marketed as strongly as her image and her singles. Whatever people may say about Swift or Bey, their album releases are events. They’re immediately seen as conceptual bodies of work deserving of a closer look. Perhaps Rihanna has done too well in the hit-making category for casual fans to realize her albums are more than just commercial formalities. I think there’s some validity in what I just wrote, but I’m positive there are writers with more thorough takes than this.
ist das fake?
Hi Vertie, thanks for the comment!
No, this report is not fake. As of today (March 16, 2020) Beyoncé’s camp has not updated her sales in quite some time. Until that happens, this is the difference in total record sales between Rihanna and Beyoncé. I’m almost certain it isn’t *that* big of a gap due to recent activity (i.e. Homecoming, Lion King soundtrack, Kobe memorial performance), but I will not update this piece with mere speculation.
Perhaps follow Beyoncé Stats (@BeyStats) on Twitter, I’m sure they will get the information before I do.
Sorry but your data comes from wikipedia which can be easily edited by people also there’s an article from Beyonce’s publishing company in 2013 that reported she sold 75million albums as of that year and honestly it’s more credible than this, also her certifications are really outraged so it’s weird stating this headline. I hope she actually updates to know where she truly stands.
Also she has 6 studio albums*
Thanks for commenting, Martin.
I believe this is the Sony article you’re referring to. This piece is actually cited by the Wikipedia page covering Beyoncé’s discography. As explained at the very beginning, Wikipedia pages about major-label artists cite data from the world’s most authoritative sources of commercial music information. I’m not citing Wikipedia, rather, I’m citing Nielsen, the RIAA, Billboard, Sony, and so on.
Clearly, Mrs. Knowles-Carter is in no rush to update her numbers. As it stands, however, she’s still hovering in the low end between 100 and 200 million records sold. The wait on Beyoncé’s update has been acknowledged in the piece.
Thank you for correcting me, she does indeed have 6 studio albums. Will be edited into the piece!
She’s between 200 – 250 million records worldwide seeing how she has sold at least over 150Million singles not lower end of 200m.
She’s definitely not at 250. More like 190-220. Show me your sources.
I think you need to differentiate the actual sells. This article is very misleading. Beyonce has sold 160million albums worldwide including destiny child. While Rihanna has only sold 60million albums world wide and 215 million digital singles world wide. A lot easier to sell a catchy dance song than a complete cohesive album. A lot easier to spend a dollar than $10-15. Respect both women but they are definitely not equal. She is not the fenty boss either… she’s the founder of fenty beauty but she is not the owner or ceo. Beyonce is the owner and ceo of ivy park. People spending 300-1000 to see beyonce live and Rihanna can’t even sell out an arena not a stadium an arena.
Thank you for your comment! Glad to have such engaged readers of this piece years later.
Yes, there is a difference between pure sales and album-equivalent units. But to imply there’s such a thing as “actual” sales in a world where music consumption is often digital is erroneous. Not to mention Beyoncé, too, has plenty of singles available for digital download that have helped her cause. That 160 million figure of hers captures total records, not just albums. In fact, Beyoncé’s solo albums sales are closer to 20 million (as of 2016) and the addition of Destiny’s Child figures bumps her to around 40 million in albums alone. My larger point is there is no shame in any artist being a commercial force through digital single sales, something Rihanna has indeed mastered and deserves recognition for. Here’s more from ATC on how album-equivalent units and digital sales are not the farce many fans claim they are.
Sure, Rih does not have either of the two lead executive titles you mentioned. I also don’t think it’s a stretch to claim that as the highly-invested founder and face of the business, she has a hand in steering the Fenty ship.
All in all, the comparison was made to provide a better perspective on what Rihanna has been able to accomplish in the music industry. In a shortsighted debate about who the artist of our generation is, there would be little doubt in Beyoncé being that artist. That being said, Rih’s discography is nothing to scoff at critically and the scope of her numbers make her a queen in today’s music landscape as well. I don’t find the presentation of the facts in this article to be misleading at all.
Again, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment.
Yo my g show me evidence for the claim that she has sold 160 albums worldwide. I need some evidence bro.
when Bey updates her Certifications the gurls will gag
Lots of albums don’t update their sales
What a thoughtful comment!
Beyoncé hasn’t publicly updated her sales claims, so I doubt this is the actual difference in sales. But until new numbers come in, this is where things stand.
[…] knows Rihanna is a pop superstar, obviously—the woman sells gazillions of albums and has more awards than you can shake a stick at, including nine Grammys! But true fans also know […]
[…] 2006, Across The Culture reported she’d actually sold 100 million more records than Beyonce. So, if Beyonce is Queen […]
[…] 2006, Across The Culture reported she’d actually sold 100 million more records than Beyonce. So, if Beyonce is Queen […]
It’s sad that you based album sells from Wikipedia. You fail to realize that Wikipedia is an inaccurate website and that anyone can post whatever information that they want. If you were really smart, you would’ve used actual music recording websites like RIAA, Soundscan, and etc.
This article basically depicts how horrible and flawed your research is. SMH
Thank you for commenting, Jonhhy! I definitely understand the hesitance to trust Wikipedia as a primary source, but there are two things about Wikipedia’s credibility as a source I think many people overlook:
1. Wikipedia is a rigorously regulated and reviewed hub of aggregate data. See for yourself by reviewing their community code of conduct here.
2. I would have gladly pulled record sales data directly from a source such as the RIAA or Soundscan, but the sales of international artists such as Rihanna and Beyoncé are pretty much everywhere. In order to factor in sales from outside of the United States, I needed a trustworthy sum of all of this data. Wikipedia provides healthy estimates derived from the sources you have recommended to me as well as dozens of international sources I’m not as familiar with. I explained this in the opening paragraph of this article, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and say you must have skipped over it.
Hope that helps you see this article in a new light. Again, thanks for the comment!
I love Rihanna. She is the renaissance woman of the music Industry. Her music is art and fashion. I do not care for Beyonce. I totally agree with the previous comment that she is ‘too packaged”. I do respect her money though. Her father was a marketing genius and he taught her well.
When it comes to both Rihanna and Beyonce creating cohesive projects I think they both fall very short when compared to Control, Rhythm Nation, Janet, Velvet Rope, Unbreakable.
Thanks for the comment!
Definitely agree with the Renaissance woman comment, especially with her career moves since the release of ANTI. On the topic of Beyoncé, however, I think the truth of her reputation is somewhere in between what her BeyHive members think and what skeptics say.
Her brand is overwhelming and crazy influential, but I find it tough to say her artistry is head and shoulders above women at her level (e.g. Rihanna, Adele). That being said, I really do think Lemonade is among the best albums of this decade even when you get past the obvious A-list gossip that provides the music’s subtext. She convincingly tackles a range of sounds from rock to R&B to country and each song plays a valuable part in Lemonade‘s powerful, multidimensional narrative arc. The visual aspect of the album is also spectacular. I think it’s too early to determine if ANTI or Lemonade can stand up against the best of Janet or Madonna, but I wouldn’t be so quick to downplay Bey’s artistry because of how obnoxiously big her brand is.
I don’t think ANTI was Rihanna’s first album less focused on radio, remember Rated R? It was praised by critics and even scored a 100% by LA Times. While Beyonce is more respected by critics, they do sell right about the same number of albums with Rihanna selling more songs as pointed out. Also Rihanna has had an album of the year nomination with LOUD. Love both though Beyonce is killing those stadium tours, Rihanna isn’t too far behind though.
I had to go back to read about Rated R after this comment. You’re definitely right. I guess I’m trying to say ANTI was Rihanna’s most blatant disregard for pop sensibility (the name is pretty self-explanatory). Also, let’s not forget Beyonce’s AOTY nomination with Lemonade.
Yeah no. Rihanna sells out everywhere. And selling singles is just as difficult as selling albums.
Take Rihanna over Beyonce any day ! She follows in pop music’s first female mega star’s (Donna Summer) footsteps…leaning heavily on dance music and being forward thinking in her music. That is why she is more popular globally.
Thank you for your comment! Seems to be a lot of Rihanna admirers flocking to this article, haha.
Honestly, barely recognized the name Donna Summer. But a quick Google search and WOW. Not only was her career incredible, I see the comparison. Thank you for the historical perspective.
Michael Denis Rihanna is pure marketing, she can’t sing live and is auto-tuned studio singer!
Michael Dennis Donna was not a pop singer, she sang disco.The first female megastar is Ella Fitzgerald as well.
I agree with the previous comment. I believe that it is Rihanna who is evolving, while Beyonce is stalling. Both have great powers, but only one can manipulate that power to generate novel and creative music-Rihanna. I also believe that Rihanna’s longevity will outrun any other artist in the current field. We continue to under-estimate her, which is why whenever she drops another record that is good we are very surprised by how good it is. I love beyonce, but if she keeps doing the same thing, people will get bored and simply move on. Can’t wait for RihRih’s 15th no.1 song. Who knows, it could be “Wild thoughts” 🙂
Thank you for the comment, Mat. I don’t agree with all of it, but I do think it says something important about how the brands of each artist are perceived. Though ‘Lemonade’ is an enormous work with a variety of sounds (skip from ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’ to ‘Daddy Lessons’ to ‘All Night’ and you’ll be amazed it’s the same album), Rihanna does have a more extensive track record in genres outside of R&B/pop. I also think she has time to reach or surpass Beyoncé in the album game, with ‘Anti’ being a promising step in the direction of an AOTY winning project.
I wonder what others will think about your assessment of Rih’s longevity and “power to generate novel and creative music.” Does she have both? Absolutely! More so than Beyoncé though? Ehh, tough.
To be honest both of them are not that great singers as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Celine Dion, Lara Fabian,Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand…..but in term of singing Beyonce is much better than Rihanna.
Thanks for your comment! If it’s purely a debate about vocals, I’d agree with you and say Beyoncé has Rih beat in that department. But each artist has their strengths.
Mat Leo Rihanna is marketing who can’t sing live and uses auto-tune and effects! Sia is much better vocalist than her!
Never cared much for Beyoncé’s sound. Great voice … a huge talent …but …too packaged. Also; she likes to work with a pole too much.
Rihanna — great voice, great talent …better sound in all genres –pop, disco queen, rock, ballads.
Ghost Dog Rihanna and great voice??? Sia blows her pout of the water! Beyonce can sing and dance in the same time! Rihanna is good looking marketing who sings with auto-tune and barely hold a note live.