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Who's really the biggest rock band in the world right now?

There are more ways of measuring a band's popularity than ever before: sales, streams, followers... but who's the biggest? We explore the options, crunch the numbers, and answer the question

There was a time when it was relatively simple to figure out who was the biggest act in the world. Who played the largest shows and who sold the most records? It was them. They were the biggest act in the world. Then in 2000, record sales started to fall off a cliff and millions of LP/CD sales were decimated by downloads of single tracks – and then this multiplied into billions of streams on Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, SoundCloud, YouTube and more. Then came social media metrics where whole new generations of acts were building their audience away from radio, TV and the music press.

Acts have to keep so many plates spinning now – digital, social, live, brands, merchandise, radio, synchronisation – and so it follows there is no one way to measure who is “biggest”. Big in live no longer means big in record sales. And big on YouTube is no guarantee of big on radio.

So, in rock music accountancy’s version of asking how long a piece of string is, here we consider who is rock’s biggest act.

Record Sales

Record sales are not what they were. In 2005, global CD sales were worth $17.9bn according to the IFPI. Last year they were worth $5.8bn. The market is a third of what it was a decade ago, but it’s still a $5.8bn business and equal to 39% of the recorded music business (so including streams and downloads). A big album can still set the cash registers alight – as Adele, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran all prove.

The best sellers are dominated by pop, with Coldplay being the only vaguely “rock” act in the global top 10 last year. AC/DC did, however, have the 15th biggest album of last year, with Rock Or Bust selling an estimated 1.25m copies, with Muse chasing their tail at number 20 (Drones sold 1.1m) and that’s about it for the entire top 40 last year. It might prove their swan song album, so it’s fitting that AC/DC clinch this one.

Tour Income

The old way the music business ran was that tours were loss-leaders to sell albums. Today that has been totally inverted and going on the road accounts for the lion’s share of big bands’ income, with albums the justification for getting on the tour bus. Of course, mega-acts tour intensively for 12-18 months and then might take five years off, so who is biggest will depend on who is out on the road at any given time.

Billboard Boxscore collates ticket sales globally and reported that live music in 2015 generated $20bn (four times what CD sales were worth, so it’s clear why so many acts, perhaps best their prime, are still playing shows). Taylor Swift ($217.4m) and One Direction ($208m) lead the pack, but U2, even though they were deliberately playing arenas and not stadiums, were third ($133.6m), just slightly ahead of The Rolling Stones ($131.5m) and some distance in front of Fleetwood Mac ($75.8m).

Of course, with live music ticket sales are profitability are far from synonymous as hundreds of crew members plus production and transport costs will sponge up a lot of that. Even so, despite the fact they literally couldn’t give their last album away, U2 remain the world’s biggest rock band live.

Facebook Followers

With just under 1.2bn regular users, Facebook is by some distance the biggest social network and gets the sort of audience numbers that major media brands like the BBC or Fox can only dream of. To put that in context, one in seven people on the planet are regularly logging in and posting on the site. No media outlet in history has had that level of “reach”.

Shakira has over 104m “friends” on there, by far Facebook’s biggest musician. Just outside the top 10 is Linkin Park with 62.5m followers. You have to go all the way down to #27 to find another rock band – The Beatles with 42.4m followers. Metallica are the third biggest rock band, with 37.6m fans putting them at #36. Of course, no one makes money directly from Facebook so you have to question just how much food billions of ‘thumbs ups’ puts on the table but, even so, Linkin Park absolutely walked this one. Maybe they should change their name to Like-in Park.

Wealth

The big one, really. This probably says more about rock stars’ ability to – after decades of seeing those who’d gone before them ripped off and left destitute – deftly invest and hold onto their fortunes. Forbes, each year, adds up the biggest earners in music across what the likes of the Financial Times insist on calling their “revenue streams”; but that will often tell us more about who was most active in a 12-month period than who has the fattest bank account.

Last year, Katy Perry led the pack with $135m, with Eagles the most profitable rock band ($73.5m), followed by Fleetwood Mac ($59.5m) and The Rolling Stones ($57.5m). The real test, however, is in consistent earnings and no one, according to the tabulations of TheRichest.com, can hold a candle to Paul McCartney with a net worth estimated at $1.2bn. He’s miles ahead of Elton John ($480m), Mick Jagger ($360m) and even poor old Ringo Starr ($350m). Given he’s written at least 80 (approx.) of the greatest songs of all time, it almost feels the world has short-changed him and he should have way more than that. John Lennon was wrong. Paul wasn’t the walrus; he’s clearly the nest egg man.

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YouTube Plays

It’s been said before, but YouTube really is the biggest music service in the world. Spotify has 100m regular users. YouTube has over 1bn. If you do not have any music on YouTube, you might as well not exist. While record labels and artists might complain about how badly they are paid from YouTube streams, none of them are bold enough to boycott it. They know they need it more than it needs them.

Gangnam Style might be the biggest video in YouTube’s 11-year history (current plays = 2.6bn) but it is, essentially, a novelty hit. The trick on a platform like YouTube is longevity; but like record sales, pop and top 40 acts tend to dominate – primarily as YouTube is the main place their audiences listen to music.

Rock acts are way down the YouTube Music Global Top 100 for the week of August 12-18, with Linkin Park (them again) at #23 with 49.5m views and you have to go all the way down to #49 to find another rock band (Metallica with 34.6m views). As with Facebook, Linkin Park have made the jump to digital more convincingly than most of their peers.

Illegal Downloads

Part of the reason for the decline in album sales since the turn of the millennium was the concurrent rise of P2P sites and, eventually, torrent sites. In 2016, the idea of stuffing a hard drive with thousands of snide MP3s seems positively archaic when most of it available to stream online.

Even so, it is another (counterintuitive) measurement of success – or “success” as far as record companies are concerned. There is a logic that what is popular in the charts is what is also popular on P2P/torrent sites and they do mirror each other quite closely. While there will be Whitesnake and Saxon B-sides on there by the yard, they are not anywhere near troubling the top of the charts. Cross-referencing a number of unlicensed sites would suggest that The Beatles are the moist illegally downloaded rock act of all time. It’s a victory, we suppose, albeit a hollow one.

Instagram

It will not surprise you to learn that Instagram is dominated by the kind of acts that hog the top 10 through the year. This is their and their fans’ natural habitat (alongside Snapchat and musical.ly). Given it’s the heartland of guilt-free self-promotion, it’s no shock that Taylor Swift was at the apex in 2015 with 57.1m followers and is often the place she uses to “leak” stories to the tabloid press about this most “private” of lives lived in public.

Rock bands are nowhere to be seen in the major lists featuring most followed or most liked acts. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as Instagram has its audience and its biggest celebrities know how to work it to their advantage. Different strokes (and filters) for different folks. Fall Out Boy were #13 in the most mentioned music acts of last year so, to quote Oscar Wilde, if there’s one thing worse than being talked about it’s not being talked about, so Pete Wentz and chums take this one.

Influence

More intangible and harder to measure than anything as it becomes toweringly subjective. One route is to look at what people were searching for on Google and last year Eagles Of Death Metal were the most searched for rock band, but that was obviously related to the terrorist attacks in Paris and sits as a horrific anomaly.

Just behind them, Foo Fighters were the next most searched for band but, really, this only reveals what is in the public discourse at a given time and cannot be treated as synonymous with influence. For this category we have to consider what single band is referenced the most by media, by fans and – most importantly – musicians to be held up as the yardstick by which all other bands are measured. For this, there can only be one winner – Wings, the band The Beatles could have been. Not really. It’s The Beatles. Of course it’s The Beatles. How can it not be?

Streaming Audio

The IFPI reported that CD sales and download sales continued to fall in 2015 but the recorded music market grew 3.2% and there was only one reason for this – streaming. (Revenue from streams grew 45.2% to a value of $2.89bn.) The only problem here is that only one major streaming service makes its numbers public – but, handily, it’s also the biggest streaming service so it’s safe to conclude that whoever is biggest on Spotify is the biggest across streaming as a whole.

There are two ways to asses this: Spotify streams across its history; or Spotify listens in the past month. If we take the former approach, the playing field is not quite level as some acts have been on Spotify from the start eight years ago and others, for licensing reasons, joined later so they have not had time to build their plays (the most significant being The Beatles who only went on streaming services in December last year).

If we look at total plays, Foo Fighters are second, The Rolling Stones are third and Metallica are fourth. If we look at listening in the past month The Beatles are second, Guns ‘N’ Roses third and The Rolling Stones fourth. There is, however, a clear winner across the two metrics – all-time plays and plays in the last month. It’s Queen. And by some distance. They are, literally, the campions.


Conclusion

Across all the measurement categories, there were a wide range of winners. With digital and the changing ways that bands make money and reach their fans today, the idea of a mainstream core has been fractured and things have moved into a series of fiefdoms. Consumption has changed so much in the past two decades and therefore our understanding of “success” has to change with it.

Linkin Park could be seen to have “won” social media, but they rarely appear in the most popular acts in terms of record sales or Spotify streams, so that suggests “success” in one category is not transferable into another one.

Equally, some acts – by simple dint of the fact they are no longer going concerns – will be discounted from categories like touring and will be further down the rankings in areas like social media.

Based on all these measurements of success, it’s fair to declare The Beatles the “winners” overall as they topped two categories (or three if you count Paul McCartney being rock’s wealthiest star). After that, it’s probably neck and neck between The Rolling Stones and Queen, so we’ll put them as joint second. Just because they had an album out last year and toured it, AC/DC are probably third, but would be way down the list if we looked at a year when they weren't active. For fourth place, we can declare it a tie between Linkin Park and Metallica.

So, there you have it. The Beatles win. Again.

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