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Musicians do not dominate sales in America like they did in the past

By Chris Persaud

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Musicians nowadays spend far less time at the top of the U.S. music scene than they did from the 1940s to the 1990s.

Billboard has tracked music album sales in the United States each week since 1945. The Billboard 200 logs the top-selling albums in America. A full list of the top selling albums for each week can be found here.

I scraped the data using a Python script I wrote, then used D3.js to make a chart showing the top-selling albums in America for each week from March 24, 1945 to May 28, 2016.

There is a clear trend. Albums and artists do not stay at the number one spot as long as they did decades ago. Check below this chart for more on that.

Or scroll through the chart and tap/mouseover each album cover for more information. One square represents one week.

Top-selling albums in the U.S., 1945 to May 2016

More competition

One thing the data makes clear: There’s a lot more competition today than there was decades ago. This is illustrated in the following chart, which shows how many artists reached the number one spot on the Billboard 200 in each decade from the 1940s to now. (The chart excludes soundtracks and compilations, like the “Now That’s What I Call Music” series).

Number of artists at the top of the Billboard 200, 1945 to May 2016

The growth in top-selling artists has grown almost exponentially since Billboard started ranking albums. Billboard logged just 28 artists in its list of top-selling albums during the 1950s. But for 2010 to May 2016 alone, 138 artists have reached the top. At this rate, this decade will beat the previous decade’s record of 166 artists before 2020.

This means popular artists spend less time at the top. See the chart below, which shows how many weeks, on average, a top-selling album spent at the number one spot on the Billboard 200 during each decade.

Average number of non-consecutive weeks an album is top-selling in America, 1945 to May 2016

Popular albums spent more than two months on average at the top during the 1950s. But today, a popular album spends just around 10 days as the best-selling album in America.

Chart toppers

You can get some sense of a decade’s music by looking at its most popular artists. Here’s a small snapshot of the mid-1940s through the mid-2010s. The table below shows which artists spent the most weeks at number one on the Billboard 200.

Decade Artist Weeks as top-selling artist in the U.S.
1945-1949 Al Jolson 49
1950s Mario Lanza 53
1960s The Beatles 111
1970s Elton John 39
1980s Michael Jackson 43
1990s Garth Brooks 50
2000s Eminem 20
2010 to May 2016 Adele 34

While I could have made something more comprehensive if I had access to more than just the top of the Billboard 200, the results are still interesting.

The Beatles are by far the dominant name on this list, having spent 111 weeks as the top-selling musicians in the U.S. during the 1960s – a bit more than two years altogether.

During this decade so far, Adele can claim the honor of being the top-selling artist in America for more weeks than her peers. Taylor Swift has second place so far, with 24 weeks. Eminem and Justin Bieber are tied in a distant third place with nine weeks each.

This is also the first decade where the top-selling artists so far are female singers.

Notes on data and how I crunched these numbers

Between 1960 and August 1963, Billboard split the ranks between monophonic and stereophonic sound before merging them in August 1963. I ranked only the mono charts for that time period.

Billboard started tracking digital sales on December 13, 2014. This includes streaming music services like Spotify, a post on Billboard’s website stated. Under the new system, when 10 tracks from an album are bought digitally, or when tracks from an album are streamed 1,500 times, it counts as a sale.

Once I scraped the Billboard 200 data into a comma-separated file, I had to manually enter some data, like from 1960-63. I also had to fill-in missing album images. Download the raw data here.

I used a SQLite program to make a SQLite data table out of the CSV. Check this text file to see the SQL commands I used to make data for my analyses.

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