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3.7 billion singles sold since the Official Singles Chart began in 1952


3.7 billion singles sold since the Official Singles Chart began in 1952

By Lauren Kreisler

November 14, 1952 saw the birth of the UK’s Official Singles Chart - and to mark 60 years of this great British institution the Official Charts Company has compiled the very first survey of singles sales volumes stretching back to the 1950s.

The review concludes that UK music fans have bought 3.7 billion singles since the first UK singles chart was published in November 1952.

3.7 billion – in numbers

The 3.7 billion total equates to:

  • Enough singles to fill London’s O2 Arena 185,000 times over
  • 21,000 singles for every person attending Glastonbury Festival next year
  • 824 times the number of copies that Adele’s 21 has sold in the UK

Lay them back to back in 7 inch vinyl and that would also be the equivalent of:

  • The length of 6 million football pitches
  • 17,000 Felix Baumgartner Red Bull Stratos jumps
  • 16 times around the Earth
  • Almost enough to reach to the moon and back

2010s set to be all-time biggest decade for singles sales

The survey also indicates that the biggest pre-digital decade for singles was the ‘80s, when 640m singles were sold, followed by the ‘90s (620m singles).

In the digital era, singles sales have soared, with 683m sold in the Noughties (a decade which includes six years of downloads, which took off legitimately in 2004, the year iTunes was launched in the UK).

But, in the current decade, a total of 500m singles (now more than 99% digital) have already been sold up to this week - a total which is almost equivalent to the whole of the 1970s (540m) - with seven years of the decade still to run!

The estimates indicate that 1957 was the ‘50s’ biggest year for singles with an estimated 50m singles sold to music fans, while 1964 was the high watermark for the '60s with an estimated 57m singles sold.  In the ‘70s, 1979 was the biggest year with 79m singles sold over the counter, in the ‘80s 1984 was the peak year with 71m sold and in the ‘90s 1997 was biggest with 78m.

In the Noughties, 2009 saw 152m singles sold, while this year is expected to see an all-time high of 190m singles sold in the UK (compared to 178m for the whole of last year) – to date, this year has seen 160m singles sold.

Official Charts Company Managing Director Martin Talbot says, "Working on historic statistics from so long ago to create data reflecting sales to consumers has required diligent research and attention to detail. And, while it is unlikely to ever be possible to arrive at exact totals for those early years due to the nature of the data available, we are confident that these figures give us the clearest picture yet published of the development of singles sales across the six decade history of the Official Singles Chart."

Singles sales by decade

Decade Total sales Biggest selling year Sales of biggest year Decade’s biggest seller
1950s 280m 1957 50m Not available
1960s 450m 1964 57m She Loves You - The Beatles
1970s 540m 1979 79m Mull Of Kintyre / Girls' School - Wings
1980s 640m 1984 71m Do They Know It's Christmas? - Band Aid
1990s 620m 1997 78m Candle In The Wind '97 / Something About The Way You Look Tonight - elton John
2000s 683m 2009 152m Anything Is Possible / Evergreen - Will Young
2010s 500m 2012 160m* Someone Like You - Adele
Total 3,713m      

* - Up to week 45

Source: Official Charts Company / BPI

The survey has been completed by the Official Charts Company with BPI research director Chris Green, taking data for all years from 1955 to the present day and cross-matching manufacturing market totals and trade delivery market totals, together with existing over the counter data from more recent years.

 Some of the very earliest manufacturing market data has never previously been available before as it has only recently been uncovered, while no attempt has previously been made to equate the trade delivery figures which have existed to reflect actual, over the counter purchases by consumers.

Martin Talbot says, “It would not have been possible to put this survey together without the efforts of BPI research director Chris Green (who provided access to BPI data and also helped us sniff out some previously unavailable sources of information) and Official Charts’ own Charts Director Omar Maskatiya.”

Single formats

The research also highlighted that in the years immediately after the launch of the Official Singles Chart in 1952, 78s were the pre-eminent singles format accounting for more than 90% of all singles sold in 1952 through to 1955, before seven inch 45rpm singles became the dominant format (taking more than 50% for the first time) in 1959. By 1960, the seven inch was accounting for 90% of all singles bought.

The seven inch endured until the early ‘90s – for the first time, its share of all singles sold fell below 50% for the first time in 1990, with 12 inch, cassette and CD singles all competing for popularity. By 1992, the CD single had become UK consumers’ favourite format, accounting for 31% of all sales.