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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