Interpreting changes in ecosystem structure from the fossil record can be challenging. In a prominent example, the traditional view that brachiopods were ecologically dominant over bivalves in the Paleozoic has been disputed on both taphonomic and metabolic grounds. Aragonitic bivalves may be underrepresented in many fossil assemblages due to preferential dissolution. Abundance counts may further understate the ecological importance of bivalves, which tend to have more biomass and higher metabolic rates than brachiopods. We evaluate the relative importance of the two clades in exceptionally preserved, bulk-sampled fossil assemblages from the Pennsylvanian Breathitt Formation of Kentucky, where aragonitic bivalves are preserved as shells, not molds. At the regional scale, brachiopods were twice as abundant as bivalves and were collectively equivalent in biomass and energy use. Analyses of samples from the Paleobiology Database that contain abundance counts are consistent with these results and show no clear trend in the relative ecological importance of bivalves during the middle and late Paleozoic. Bivalves were probably more important in Paleozoic ecosystems than is apparent in many fossil assemblages, but they were not clearly dominant over brachiopods until after the Permian–Triassic extinction, which caused the shelly benthos to shift from bivalve and brachiopod dominated to merely bivalve dominated.