Most downloaded songs of all-time
On April 28, 2003, a store called iTunes opened. Ultimately, it severely damaged the music industry, but it also granted milions of sales for many global hits.
Now that this market is in its last breath, we review the very biggest songs from this era, with the top selling tracks in the world combining both downloads and ringtones. In this article, we will list down songs that cracked 15 million digital sales. The overall #1 may make you laugh.
2003-2006: legal digital sales pop up
We tend to believe that Japan was late to the party of digital sales. In truth, ringtones took off there earlier there than anywhere else.
A song released as early as in 2004 went on to sell in excess of 5 million units through downloads and ringtones in this country alone. This song is no other than meme track Dragostea Din Tei by Romanian group O-Zone, in what is possibly one of the most shocking chart facts ever!
Soon, digital sales started to gain steam in the US. The RIAA, which introduced Gold and Platinum awards for them to celebrate 100,000 and 200,000 units, respectively, increased to the standard 500,000 and 1,000,000 sales as early as mid 2006.
Ridin’ by Chamillionaire was one of the first sales beasts in the US. Issued in late 2005, the song was certified for 3 million ringtones by August 2006 and 4 million by May 2007.
Quickly, downloads went through the roof too. On May 22, 2005, Hollaback Girl by Gwen Stefani was the first song to hit 1 million sales in this format. A pair of months later, Since U Been Gone by Kelly Clarkson joined it, then new songs followed them at fast pace. By February 2006, You’re Beautiful by James Blunt was organically selling past 100,000 units per week.
2007-2008: the first blockbusters
Over 300 million ringtones were sold in the US in every year from 2006 to 2009. Then, they collapsed. Downloads peaked later and lasted longer, topping 1 billion from 2008 to 2015.
Songs lucky enough to have been strong at the good moment managed to sell bucketloads in both formats.
This is when we meet our first blockbusters. We kick with late 2007’s mastodons Apologize by Timbaland & OneRepublic and Low by Flo Rida ft. T-Pain.
The former was more global, with huge numbers everywhere. It bubbles a 15-million sellers list yet with 13.83 million units sold so far.
The latter wasn’t as strong in continental Europe or Latin America for example, but it was so big in the US and in Asia that it makes up for that and more. In fact, Flo Rida‘s smash sold 11.29 million units in the US alone, split as 3.6 million ringtones and 7.69 million downloads, with a global total of 16.33 million.
In 2008, downloads were more and more mainstream. On western markets, Just Dance by Lady Gaga and Viva La Vida by Coldplay were monster sellers, shifting 13.49 million and 14.24 million units, respectively. This is enough to top a large wave of 10-12 million sellers coming from the likes Katy Perry, Taylor Swift and Beyonce.
The strongest song from that year is none of these yet. Jason Mraz‘ I’m Yours was nowhere near as big at first, but it stood around for years at the peak of the market. It ended up with similar sales on western countries than the initial blockbusters, but also destroyed the competition in Asia, edging ahead globally.
The song sold a total of 8.8 million copies in the US, 855,000 in the UK, and… 5.66 million in South Korea. In total, it shifted 19.67 million units.
2009-2010: ringtones collapse but downloads go global
Also released in 2008 but mostly a hit during 2009, Lady Gaga‘s Poker Face was arguably the biggest bomb to emerge during the digital era up to that point, cracking 10 million sales in a year only. It went on to sell 9.07 million in the US, well past a million in both the UK and Japan, and 2.5 million in South Korea.
While its sales were unbeatable at some point, and in spite of remaining among the very top sellers ever, other tracks topped it in the long run. It still claims a notesworthy 19.30 million sales.
Mega sellers were coming out at fast pace, and soon another album got a 1-2 punch just as strong as Just Dance and Poker Face. I’m refering to Black Eyed Peas‘ storm Boom Boom Pow and I Gotta Feeling, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a ridiculous total of 26 consecutive weeks.
At first the former looked like the strongest, and it did sell a tremendous 15.01 million units so far, but I Gotta Feeling, on top of being super big, just kept selling well for years, ultimately topping anyone else.
This song remains the highest selling download of all-time in the US at 9.07 million, plus 1.8 million ringtones. It’s up to 1.47 million in the UK, 740,000 in Canada, 900,000 in France and Germany combined, etc.
While I Gotta Feeling did amazing in Asia, with 650,000 sales in Japan and over 1.2 million in South Korea, it isn’t that big for the size of the latter market. Up to 19.47 million units globally, it’s the best selling digital song of all-time in western markets, but Asian consumers sent someone else to the definitive #1 spot…
2009 wasn’t over that another beast came out. Tik Tok by Ke$ha was soon to dominate global charts, climbing to the top of most markets in early 2010.
In a year marked by the amazing dominance of female singers (Rihanna, Katy Perry and Ke$ha claimed 9 US #1 hits in this calendar year, topping charts for 34 weeks), the song moved 8.78 million units in the US, 2.85 million in South Korea and great numbers all around the world. At 730,000 copies, it felt even kinda average in the UK where it peaked at 4. In the world, it amassed 17.41 million units.
2010 was also the year of Eminem‘s amazing comeback with Recovery. The top selling song released that year is no other than Love the Way You Lie, with Rihanna featured, which moved 18.89 million copies, led by the US (8.93 million), South Korea (3.35 million) and the UK (1.29 million).
Similarly titled Just the Way You Are of newcomer Bruno Mars also became a phenomenal success. With a similar sales distribution through the world but at a slightly lower scale, it stands at 17.03 million sales.
2011-2012: the market peak
By 2011, markets late to the digital sales had at last embraced it, sending even more songs to incredible numbers.
Of course, the year was marked by the out of the world success of Adele. Her album 21 became the biggest record of the millennium, but singles also did wonders.
In the UK (1.68 million), Australia (710,000) or Italy (240,000), Someone Like You was her biggest seller. It was obviously huge everywhere, concluding on 17.24 million sales.
Rolling In The Deep was even stronger in various key markets though. Leading in the US (9.62 million, including 8.9 million downloads) and South Korea (4.25 million), it moved a stunning 20.68 million.
This makes it one of only 3 songs which cracked the 20 million mark. Yet, it’s only the 3rd best seller from 2011…
Maroon 5‘s Moves Like Jagger was another unexpected comeback, following the foot steps of Love The Way You Lie. The track lasted many months in the upper region of charts. At that point, ringtones were getting very low. The track failed to reach half a million in this format in the US in spite of 36 weeks on charts and a #5 peak.
Downloads were coming close to their peak though. Retrospectively, we can say that this was the best moment to maximize digital sales, as the market was almost at its highest, and the following pair of years, when new tracks continue to sell large amounts, were huge years too.
Back to Jagger, Maroon 5 have been very popular everywhere, but their status in South Korea is unreal. There, they are second to none.
This song sold was the top selling international song of the year in both 2011 and 2022 in this market, crushing 2 million units both times, and climbed all the way up to 6.15 million downloads in total, almost as much as the 7.06 million it moved in the US. Huge sales in remaining markets too built a total of 20.79 million.
Rolling In The Deep, Moves Like Jagger and Someone Like You have all been #1 in the US during the summer of 2011.
We are missing another hit from this period. In the middle of that run, LMFAO‘s Party Rock Anthem led the chart for 6 weeks. The song became unstoppable, selling 8.87 million in the US, 4.34 million downloads in South Korea, 1.3 million in the UK, 1.13 million in Australia, 870,000 in Canada, 850,000 in Japan, etc.
This craze shoots it to 20.95 million units, making it the highest selling digital song of all-time, although Jagger and Deep are both very close behind. The duo tried it again with Sexy & I Know It, again smashing with 12.92 million sales.
Speaking about the summer of 2011 and Australia, the country saw local singer Gotye‘s Somebody That I Used To Know lead their chart for 8 weeks. It took some months until it crossed over globally, but when it did, it did in great fashion.
If we look at sales from North America, Oceania and the main European markets, Somebody even outsold slightly Party Rock Anthem. A complete lack of love from Asia reduces its ranking globally though as it has to be satisfied with a still amazing 15.11 million sales.
More tracks started to record huge numbers in the world without breaking over Asia, like Fun.‘s We Are Young, or Imagine Dragons‘ Radioactive, at 12.39 million and 12.61 million, respectively, despite little impact in this continent.
Ironically, 2012 is also when the Asian music first dented the global audience. South Korean UFO Gangnam Style by PSY shook the world out of the blue.
The track, while also destroying records on YouTube, sold just as much as these blockbusters in most markets. It sold 4.48 million in South Korea, 1.31 million in the UK, over a million in France and Germany combined, over 700,000 in both Canada and Australia… but only 5.51 million in the US.
This is one hell of a number, especially for a foreign language song, but among 15-million sellers it’s the only track with less than 7 million sales stateside. This handicap pushes it below the all-time top 10, although with gigantic sales of 16.85 million. Even now that K-Pop blew up the world, these results remain unbelievable.
The top song from 2012 came from Canada though. Carly Rae Jepsen‘s Call Me Maybe felt as catchy and fresh from its first listen that it does 10 years later, and the world praised it. Among other sales achievements, it’s one of only 2 tracks to ever break a million sales in each the US, the UK, South Korea and Japan, the other one being the aforementioned Poker Face. Call Me Maybe moved 18.49 million units in the world.
2013-2015: the beginning of the end
From 2013, the market started to go down. One may think that 1.26 billion US downloads compared to 1.34 billion the year before isn’t that much of a deal. But as mentioned previously, downloads used to sell in large amount for several years.
A big hit in 2010, when the market was at 1.17 billion sales for the year, enjoyed a market worth 4.97 billion sales for its 2nd to 5th year. A big hit in 2013, when the market was at 1.26 billion sales for the year, enjoyed a market worth only 3.34 billion sales for its 2nd to 5th year.
For this reason, the density of big hits collapses, with only one song over the 12 million mark. Even John Legend‘s All Of Me settled at 11.94 million in spite of an amazing lasting appeal.
Top sellers which remained were the ones able to move an immense amount of units during the initial success. One track did it that year, Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell Williams‘ Blurred Lines.
The song was a terrific seller in the US, selling 7.72 million downloads and 450,000 ringtones in a dead market, thanks to 14 weeks at 1 along with 79 weeks on charts. In Europe too it was gigantic, selling 1.68 million in the UK, 780,000 in Germany, 340,000 in France, over 120,000 in Italy, etc., but it suffered the not so big in Asia syndrome. It remained blocked at 15.19 million units due to this.
Another blockbuster flooded airwaves the following year, again brought by Pharrell Williams: Happy. The ultimate feel good song sold 7.89 million in the US although the market was starting its freefall. Ringtones were ever weaker than before, but with 24 weeks at #1 it still moved past 250,000 units.
In the UK, it’s quite simply the highest selling download of all-time at 1.96 million. While it’s not the record owner once you add local hits and the likes, among the 15-million sellers it’s also the top performer in Germany (810,000) and France (470,000), while averaging 700,000 sales in Canada and Australia. It also sold nearly as much in Japan, and 1.47 million in South Korea.
Once again, this latter figure limits its position among very top selling tracks globally as it competes with songs that shifted 4 to 6 million units there. It stands at 17.27 million sales in the world, which is already a miracle for 2014 standards.
Another track worth of note, also a late 2013 release which smashed in 2014, is Let It Go from the Frozen soundtrack. Easily the biggest Disney track since at least The Lion King hits from 20 years earlier, the song sold 16.35 million once we combine versions from all local singers. The biggest ones are the English versions by Idina Menzel, at 9.82 million, and Demi Lovato, at 2.43 million.
Streaming took over the market so fast that every quarter it was harder and harder to sell large quantities. A last track managed to defy gravity, posting 16.31 million sales from late 2014 and into 2015, Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars.
The massive global chart topper somehow managed to sell 8.23 million downloads in the US with a market down nearly 30% from its peak and with catalog sales suffering from the collapse even more. It’s up to 1.69 million in the UK, quickly sold 2.23 million in South Korea before the discontinuation of downloads there, and almost 900,000 in Canada.
This was the end of an era, as no more western song ever came close to these numbers. A good way to see how fast downloads dropped later on is to check sales of the 2017 monster smash Shape Of You by Ed Sheeran, which hasn’t even reach 10 million.
Ultimately, the digital sales era was fairly short lived, with a mere 7 years separating the first blockbuster (Low) to the last (Uptown Funk).
2016-now: China fill up an empty room
And then Chinese platforms started to sell downloads!
So far, 5 songs topped 15 million sales in China. The first was I Really Want to Love This World by Hua Chenyu. Released in December 2019, the track topped 23 million sales this week.
Only a few days later, in December 30, 2019, Wang Yibo‘s No Sense came out, selling 17.59 million to date. Exactly a year later he returned with My World Rules and did it again, selling 15.48 million.
In-between, in April 25, 2020, Xiao Zhan sold 25.48 million downloads with Spotlight within a single day. The track currently stands at 54.32 million.
Of course, it would feel natural to consider it the top selling song of all-time in the world. There’s a strong asterisk yet.
Up to August 2021, the Chinese download market wasn’t regulated, it was possible to buy as many units as you want. In a country where the idol culture reigns supreme, fans quickly organized crowdfundings to buy tons of copies of songs they supported, even if the files were going to nobody.
To illustrate the case, Spotlight itself, although it was already the record holder by far, moved 84,931 units in the last 14 weeks before the start of the regulation era. In the following 14 days, after the regulation kicked in, the song sold 5,892 copies, a drop of 93.1%. This shows that we can’t consider unregulated figures at face value. These were still big hits in China, but not as big as suggested by the numbers.
Most downloaded songs of all-time
1. 2011 – LMFAO ft. Lauren Bennett & GoonRock – Party Rock Anthem [Sorry for Party Rocking] – 20,950,000
2. 2011 – Maroon 5 ft. Christina Aguilera – Moves Like Jagger [Hands All Over] – 20,790,000
3. 2010 – Adele – Rolling In The Deep  – 20,680,000
4. 2008 – Jason Mraz – I’m Yours [We Sing. We Dance. We Steal Things.] – 19,670,000
5. 2009 – Black Eyed Peas – I Gotta Feeling [The E.N.D.] – 19,470,000
6. 2009 – Lady Gaga – Poker Face [The Fame] – 19,300,000
7. 2010 – Eminem ft. Rihanna – Love the Way You Lie [Recovery] – 18,890,000
8. 2011 – Carly Rae Jepsen – Call Me Maybe [Kiss] – 18,490,000
9. 2009 – Kesha – Tik Tok [Animal] – 17,410,000
10. 2014 – Pharrell Williams – Happy [Girl / Despicable Me 2: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] – 17,270,000
11. 2011 – Adele – Someone Like You  – 17,240,000
12. 2010 – Bruno Mars – Just the Way You Are [Doo-Wops & Hooligans] – 17,030,000
13. 2012 – PSY – Gangnam Style [Psy 6 (Six Rules), Part 1] – 16,850,000
14. 2014 – Various Artists – Let It Go [Frozen] – 16,350,000
15. 2007 – Flo Rida ft. T-Pain – Low [Mail on Sunday / Step Up 2: The Streets] – 16,330,000
16. 2014 – Mark Ronson ft. Bruno Mars – Uptown Funk [Uptown Special] – 16,310,000
17. 2002 – Eminem – Lose Yourself [8 Mile] – 15,480,000
18. 2013 – Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell & T.I. – Blurred Lines [Blurred Lines] – 15,190,000
19. 2011 – Gotye ft. Kimbra – Somebody That I Used to Know [Making Mirrors] – 15,110,000
20. 2009 – Black Eyed Peas – Boom Boom Pow [The E.N.D.] – 15,010,000
You may want to keep track of this list and check the deeper ranking at this link.