CSPC: Elton John Popularity Analysis

Elton John Screenprints

About Candle in the Wind

I know what you are thinking – how can I ignore the best selling single of all-time?

On September 6 1997, the world was watching on TV the funeral of the beloved Lady Diana who passed away one week earlier. The song Candle In The Wind, originally written for Marilyn Monroe, was adjusted to fit to the late Princess of Wales and performed by John at the event.

While the TV coverage was insane, only topped by the emotion which occurred due to Lady Diana‘s passing, this was still one mere TV performance of a 25-year old song. How has it generated a single that sold way beyond 30 million units according to the press?

To understand the phenomenon we need to get back to 1997’s context. The internet was barely starting to be used by non-professional people. Most organizations didn’t have official internet websites. If most developed countries had already instituted tax deductible laws for charities donations, there was no easy-to-go process. Thus, TV-powered campaigns to support a charity product available in regular shops were incredibly efficient to fill this need. In the US, We Are The World by USA For Africa sold immense numbers that way. In the UK, Band Aid achieved similar showings, while in France it was the song Ethiopie. The most poignant was the reason to highlight the donation, and the better were the results.

Back in 1997, there was no physical single market anymore in various countries like Canada. There had been 2,9 million singles sold in 1997 in this country. Among these units, nearly 2 million were sold by Candle In The Wind. Extraordinary? For charity purpose, definitely. In terms of the music industry though, this is nonsense. Nonsense because such numbers can’t represent the success of a music record at all. They are so vastly out of touch with the market that it is clear that people haven’t bought a music single, instead they gave money for Diana’s Foundations. In other words, sales of this single do not represent John‘s popularity, nor the popularity of its song – which has very average downloads and streams nowadays, further confirming the lack of meaning of these physical sales – but instead donations to charity.

While in terms of records sales it makes sense to consider this single into John’s tally, in terms of CSPC units, they represent an outlier, a value which distorts the accurate perception presented by a comprehensive set of data. I must point out that all figures are gross-like figures with ratios mostly reflecting the price of all formats. The general public hasn’t invested their money for John while buying this record, although the singer cleverly gave away the money from the B-Side, Candle in the Wind, but not from the A-Side, so it becomes logical to exclude its sales.

Can we completely ignore that Candle In The Wind‘s status was increased by this exposure? Obviously, we can’t, but ignoring sales of the 2-track CD doesn’t ignore it. 1974’s Greatest Hits, 1987’s Live in Australia, 1990’s The Very Best Of, 1995’s Love Songs and the original 1972 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road were all fueled by this event. So was The Big Picture, an album issued two weeks after the funeral and which included the A-side of the single, Something About the Way You Look Tonight. It is difficult to know precisely how many units were achieved thanks to this performance, but the number is for sure over 5 million albums. These units are representative of people that went after John‘s music, unlike the sales of the single.

In all fairness I should also point out that John already benefits from charity boosts. Both That’s What Friends Are For led by Dionne Warwick and Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me with George Michael were sold with the charity tag, and secured nearly 4 million units combined. Clearly, AIDS related campaigns weren’t as efficient as the brutal death of Lady Diana in order to create a wave of emotion among the general public, so those singles are much closer to standard releases which is why they are still considered.

Oh, I almost forgot, how many units has the single Candle In The Wind 1997 sold? It’s still interesting to answer this question. The truth is that we can’t really know. It is impossible because of a combination of factors never seen before. The first factor is an insane amount of units shipped in no time, coupled with the sale of the disc in plenty of retailers which weren’t selling music items at all during regular times, thus outside panels of companies were tracking sales for chart purposes.

We end up with the case of a single certified for at least 11 million units in the US after only 18 days, but with Soundscan sales on 8,84 million units. We can’t tell how many of those 2,16+ million units are due to extra shipments that were returned and how many come from sales in stores outside of the Soundscan panel. The song is over 8,9 million for sure, but it’s also under 12 million for sure too, but anyone telling you precisely where it stands between those two numbers will be lying unless they worked for the Rocket label and got their hands on its bills at the time.

The situation is the same in the UK with the single quickly going 9xPlatinum, representing shipments somewhere between 5,4 million and 6 million units, but with DUS scanned sales at 4,87 million. In Canada, Billboard reported 2 million units shipped while its Soundscan tally is stopped at 1,3 million. The best we can do with available information and using median figures among possible spans is the following list of estimations:

  • North America – 12,150,000
    • US – 10,200,000
    • Canada – 1,950,000
  • Latin America – 400,000
    • Brazil – 250,000
  • Asia – 875,000
    • Japan – 675,000
  • Oceania – 1,205,000
    • Australia – 980,000
    • New Zealand – 225,000
  • Europe – 14,950,000
    • UK – 5,285,000
    • France – 2,050,000
    • Germany – 4,500,000
    • Italy – 550,000
    • Spain – 200,000
    • Sweden – 210,000
    • Netherland – 450,000
    • Switzerland – 450,000
    • Austria – 300,000
    • Finland – 55,000
    • Belgium – 350,000
    • Norway – 160,000
    • Poland – 100,000
  • World – 29,730,000

The most widely repeated figure is 33 million units sold. It is quite likely that 33 million units were indeed shipped globally during the first month of sales. Some of them though were necessarily returned at some point as it was impossible for Rocket to guess exactly how many units were going to be sold.

It raises a question often mentioned: is it the best selling single of all-time? or is Bing Crosby‘s White Christmas? This latter song has been claimed to be at over 100 million units by the Guinness Book of Records. I can give you the answer – the top seller is John‘s single. In fact, before the Rock era, the way of counting sales was completely different. EPs were counted as 2, albums as 6, but also singles sales weren’t at all the same subject as post-60s. By then, there was no singer-songwriter, and every new popular composition was immediately covered by dozens of famous singers. Countings of White Christmas were all-inclusive, meaning with all covers from all singers, every album and compilation which included all these versions plus sheet music units as well. When we speak about the best selling physical single by one artist, Crosby‘s White Christmas is nowhere near 30 million, let alone 100 million. Although It is a contender for the crown of best selling single in the US, worldwide Candle in the Wind 1997 has a clear lead.

Indeed 30 million units sold is too mind-blowing to be topped, so mind-blowing that it turns out to be irrelevant at the same time since it doesn’t mean much inside the music industry spectrum.

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obro

hi, coming back to this article im curious as total of dont let the sun go down on me. what are the separate sales for the original and the george michael duet?

ojd

hello what are the total AES for George Michael and Elton John’s version of Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me??

MSchr

What about “Don’t go breaking my heart”? It doesn’t appear on the list although it may have been his biggest hit single during the 70s.

MSchr

Hallo,
perhaps I’m too blind to find it. I’m not refering to the 1993 version from the Duets album. The original version from 1976 is not on the list with the physical singles. If I overlooked it please tell me.

Mauricio

It *is* on the physical singles list, but it’s missing from the digital singles list.

MSchr

On which page exactly? I’m sorry, but I’m still confused because it’s not listed under “Rock of the Westies”.

Lance

I think that would be fair weight to the extra value of the good box sets. Certainally the people who bought”to be continued” wouldn’t have ran out and bought all the studio albums that made it up. They would have probably bought volume I, II and maybe III of his greatest hits, but the box set had some nice extras in it. So I think if that was given a weight of 2 albums that would be a logical offset. On the other hand, I think if the best of Led Zeppelin would have come out prior to the Led… Read more »

Lance

Wow, awesome article. I really thought Elton would finish higher, but still an amazing figure. One thing I was wondering about is why a box set, like “to be continued” is only counted as one unit in the CSPC. I remember buying that box set when it came out, because next to Led Zeppelin it was one of the most comprehensive box sets ever released, and as I recall it was in the neighborhood of $60.00, the equivalent of about 5 or 6 regular album sales at the time. On the other hand Queen’s Platinum Collection was counted 3 times… Read more »

Raffi

Hi Lance! Interesting question there! Though MJD might explain it further, I believe the main reason for this is because of the nature of the 2 sets. Both are classified as box sets by Wikipedia, but here, Queen’s Platinum Collection is definitely a box set, while To Be Continued is classified as a compilation set. I believe the reason here is because the 3 discs on The Platinum Collection have the same track list as their 3 Greatest Hits Album (I,II and III). Thus, when this box set was released, it cannibalized the catalog sales of all those 3 albums.… Read more »

Raffi

Apparently, MJD also referred to this situation as well!

MJD: Elton really suffers from an exploitation of his catalog that doesn’t benefit sales units. First, he never had a major selling box set. The only one close to that, To Be Continued…, was a ‘new’ package rather than already existing sets put together.

I hope this answers your question!

Lance

I see the logic in it, and I also understand that this site measures popularity and not necessarily the monetary value of sales created the way Billboard tries to, which I think is good because a double album that sells 7 million albums isn’t more popular then a single album that sells 13 million albums. However, I’d argue the 350,000 copies of “to be continued” cannibalized several times that number in studio albums and compilations because it was such a comprehensive set, just as Queen Platnum and the individual Greatest hits albums that made it up cannibalized it’s back catalog,… Read more »

RLAAMJR.

Hi MJD, perhaps a bonus article for your top 10 greatest superbowl halftime shows ever?

Che1967

I also think Candle in the Wind (the charity single) should be included in Elton John’s total. It may be an outlier and not truly reflective of his popularity but Elton’s popularity coupled with his musical ability in co-writing the song and adjusting the lyrics helped it sell 30 million copies. If that song had been recorded by any other singer (Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, David Bowie, George Michael, Billy Joel, Liam Gallagher etc) it would not have sold any where near that number. The original was written about Marilyn Monroe and this version adapted for Lady Di, both women… Read more »

RLAAMJR.

I can see why MJD didnt include sales of the Titanic album soundtrack to Celine Dion’s name but not including Candle In The Wind to Elton John’s is definitely unacceptable.

QueenBarbra

But Billboard awarded Celine the soundtrack’s album of year award , and receive name also wrote her

RLAAMJR.

You have a point. The Bodyguard sales was added to Whitney Houston’s sales. And since Kevin Costner’s name is also on the album cover, then Kevin Costner should also share the sales with Whitney.

QueenBarbra

I point Billboard recognizeed Titanic soundtrack as Celine’s album, present award to her: the name refer to the award

QueenBarbra

https://www.billboardmusicawards.com/winners-database/?winnerKeyword=&winnerYear=1998&winnerCategory=
1998 Album of the Year
Celine Dion “Titanic”
1998 Soundtrack Album of the Year
Celine Dion “Titanic”

RLAAMJR.

I was thinking about this matter last night and today and thinking Madonna shouldnt be credited for the sales of Evite because it was for Evita. But when i tried to weigh things more, I have realized that you are more right than what i think is right. So im sorry but now, I agree with you. 🙂

Nathan

I agree that CITW should be added to Elton’s sales.
I can certainly see the charity aspect, but it is:
1. A Taupin/John penned song
2. Performed by no one else but Elton John
3. Released as a single by Elton John
4. Performed live at Diana’s funeral in front of a billion people by Elton John

But in my mind, I also add groups and solo artists for totals like MJ and Jacksons/J5 together, so no biggie

Nuclear dolphin

I think AC/DC may have a shot at 200 million! Only them and Elvis are left. There are sources on the net that say AC/DC sold more albums than Queen, U2 or The Stones. It’s gonna be close folks! Prepare for a surprise!

pat200

i doubt they will be more than 180 million but we shall see.

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