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Ask Billboard: Madonna vs. Whitney: Who's Sold More?

Guest djstephenjv


Ask Billboard is updated every Friday. Submit your burning music questions to Gary Trust at askbb@billboard.com. Please include your first and last name, as well as your city, state and country, if outside the U.S.


Hi Gary,

Whitney Houston and Madonna are making simultaneous returns to the charts, harkening back to the diva rivalry the two staged in the '80s. Which one of these pop stars has sold the most albums? Conflicting sources show one selling more than the other, and vice versa. I know you will have the most reliable information.

Neil Massey
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Hi Neil,

Houston and Madonna do indeed grace a number of charts this week, including the Billboard Hot 100, to which each superstar returns. See yesterday's Chart Beat for details.

As for who has sold the most albums since the singers' arrivals, let's use two sources. Because the pair enjoyed major successes prior to the advent of Nielsen SoundScan data in 1991, let's first look at Recording Industry of America (RIAA) figures, which encompass the spans of both singers' entire extraordinary careers.

According to the RIAA, Madonna holds a slight edge over Houston. Madonna ranks 15th all-time with 63.5 million units certified. Houston places 20th with 54 million. (The Beatles lead with 170 million units certified).

Using Nielsen SoundScan data (again, since 1991), Madonna holds a much wider lead. She has sold 26,347,000 albums, compared to 9,489,000 for Houston.

Here are Madonna's 10 best-selling albums, according to Nielsen SoundScan:

5,777,000, "The Immaculate Collection" (1990)
3,837,000, "Ray of Light" (1998)
2,923,000, "Music" (2000)
2,309,000, "Bedtime Stories" (1994)
2,086,000, "Something to Remember" (1995)
1,890,000, "Erotica" (1992)
1,695,000, "Confessions on a Dance Floor" (2005)
1,385,000, "GHV2: Greatest Hits Volume 2" (2001)
725,000, "Hard Candy" (2008)
675,000, "American Life" (2003)

Here are the totals of Houston's five studio albums to date, plus her best-of and holiday sets:

2,753,000, "My Love Is Your Love" (1998)
1,728,000, "I'm Your Baby Tonight" (1990)
1,644,000, "The Greatest Hits" (2000)
1,038,000, "Whitney Houston" (1985)
972,000, "Whitney" (1987)
737,000, "Just Whitney" (2002)
433,000, "Holiday Album" (2003)

The next showdown is set. Houston releases "I Look to You" Aug. 25, and Madonna offers "Celebration," her third hits compilation, Sept. 29. The latter date is scheduled to feature new albums from two other female superstars, which should make for a notable scramble for the top of the Billboard 200: Mariah Carey releases "Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel" and Barbra Streisand returns with her first studio album since 2005, "Love Is the Answer." Female-led alternative rock act Paramore, featuring singer Hayley Williams, will also compete for the summit the same week with its sophomore set, "Brand New Eyes."


Hi Gary,
Now that Mariah Carey has released a physical single of "Obsessed" exclusively at Wal-Mart, I was wondering how much impact a physical single can have on the Billboard Hot 100, as opposed to a digital single. And, how much effect does streaming have, as opposed to radio spins?
Also, the Black Eyed Peas have obviously been doing great with their two singles this year. In fact, I noticed that they already have done better than all the other artists combined who've reached No. 1 this year. Apart from the Peas, only six other songs have occupied No. 1 (including Lady Gaga with two), accumulating 15 weeks on top. That's short of BEP's 19 weeks at No. 1 so far this year.
Thanks, I enjoy reading your column!
Christian Medrano
Willmar, Minnesota

Thanks Christian,

"Obsessed" debuts at No. 1 this week on Billboard's Hot Singles Sales chart, which tracks sales of physical singles. The numbers on the chart certainly pale in comparison, however, to the top sales figures on Digital Songs. "Obsessed" starts on the former chart with just north of 1,000 copies sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That total would not even rank among the top 750 most paid downloads in the same tracking period. The Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" is No. 1 on Digital Songs with 197,000 downloads moved. (That's a lot of Peas in (i)Pods.)

"Obsessed" is Carey's 10th No. 1 on Hot Singles Sales, and when she last led the list, it was before download sales had amassed enough influence to contribute to the Billboard Hot 100's formula (they did as of the chart dated Feb. 12, 2005). In February 2003, "Through the Rain" bowed on Hot Singles Sales at No. 1 with 13,000 physical singles sold. If we go back just four years earlier, we can see that no matter the product form - cassette singles, CD singles, downloads - there are constants among sales of singles. In October 1999, Carey notched her best weekly total on Hot Singles Sales when "Heartbreaker" rocketed 72-1 with a hefty 271,000 singles sold.

As you might suspect, physical sales no longer have a large impact on the Hot 100, which combines songs' digital sales, physical sales, all-format radio airplay (according to Nielsen BDS) and streaming data. This week, the total point percentages for all songs on the Hot 100 break down as follows:

52%, digital sales
45%, airplay
3%, streaming
0.06%, physical singles

Thanks for submitting the Black Eyed Peas stats, as well. With 18 chart weeks left in the 2009 calendar year, we'll see if the group can become the first act since Usher in 2004 to spend more weeks at No. 1 in a year than all other artists combined. That year, his four No. 1s kept him in the lead for 28 weeks, compared to 24 weeks for the year's other eight chart-toppers.


Greetings, Gary!
With Taylor Swift in the top five on both Country Songs (No. 1) and the Billboard Hot 100 (No. 2) with "You Belong With Me," there is a good possibility that Swift could top both charts. In the event that that happens, it would be the first title to hit No. 1 on both charts since Lonestar led each, not concurrently, with "Amazed." The band's ballad began an eight-week Country Songs reign July 17, 1999. With pop and adult crossover airplay, it took over the top of the Hot 100 for two weeks starting March 4, 2000.

One has to go back to Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, 1983 to find the last song to top Country Songs and the Hot 100 simultaneously: "Islands in the Stream" by Kenny Rogers with Dolly Parton. Swift is one notch away from being the first solo female since Parton to top the Hot 100 with the widespread support of country radio. Artists such as Faith Hill and Shania Twain have risen as high as No. 2. (Carrie Underwood reigned over the Hot 100 with the "American Idol" winner's song "Inside Your Heaven" in 2005, but that was due mostly to sales and was prior to her formal arrival at the country format with "Jesus, Take the Wheel" months later). Parton, in fact, has the two most recent Hot 100 No. 1s by country women; "9 to 5" worked its way to No. 1 in February 1981.


John Maverick
Burt County, Nebraska

Hi John,

Thanks, as always, for your astute observations on Country Songs. Swift would need to pass the juggernaut that is the Black Eyed Peas' "I Gotta Feeling" on next week's Hot 100, as well as the likely lofty debut of Miley Cyrus' "Party in the U.S.A.," but we'll see if "You Belong With Me" can join the list of such crossover No. 1s.

Speaking of Billboard country charts, check out this fun YouTube clip from 1990 by a singer/songwriter who would go on to rule the format throughout the '90s. Note, especially, the lyric at 1:05. It wouldn't be long before this 'opening act' would headline, and consistently make chart headlines, of her own.




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