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Who’s the Most Popular Music Artist in the World Right Now? Well, It Depends.

It used to be reasonably easy to determine which artist was more popular than anyone else: it was the person/band who sold the most records and concert tickets. Over the years, the crown has gone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin to KISS to U2 to the Backstreet Boys. But in the 21st century, those metrics, while still important, don’t tell the whole story. And once you start digging into the statistics that rule the music industry, things get very muddy very quickly.

Because heading to a local record shop to snatch up the latest hits on vinyl LP was the only way for listeners to buy music in that time, album sales could be tracked, in orderly fashion, and the Beatles’ dominance of the age can be seen right in the charts. It’s clear in the numbers—the Beatles hold a plethora of singles records, and the band still ranks as the best-selling artist ever.

A couple of decades later, though, that tidy system of sales-tracking has gone haywire. For example, who was the biggest artist of 2016? Well, don’t ask Adele, who won album of the year at the 59th Grammy Awards in Los Angeles this year—as conclusive a title as any—and protested it.

“I can’t possibly accept this award,” the British pop star declared on the Grammy stage in February, theatrically snapping the gold statue in her hands in half. She went on: “My artist, of my life, is Beyoncé.” Meanwhile, Beyoncé herself took home the Grammy for best urban contemporary album, a wacky category that lacks any real definition but seems to serve as a consolation prize for artists who don’t place in the big leagues. (Adele, after Kanye-ing herself, did end up accepting the award.)

Music criticism like Winner’s is subjective, governed by personal tastes. But if the academy can’t settle the question of which artists are the biggest of their time, then surely, the charts can? Yet there, too, things are muddied. Thanks to a total fragmentation of music-listening methods, music charts—once the reliable last word on the talent or at least popularity of an artist—also don’t have the answer. First came online platforms like Napster and iTunes in the 2000s, introducing individual songs for digital download; music “sales” scattered even further once buffet-style streaming services like Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Music arrived.

Now, being the artist of the year is really anybody’s—and everybody’s—game.

Keep going.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38150 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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