This one’s for the girls

Country music's astonishing gender gap

By on April 23, 2019

Becoming a successful female country artist in 2019 is like pushing a boulder up a mountain: near impossible.

Despite great strides made as of late by women in music, female country artists are shockingly underrepresented when it comes to radio, award nominations and overall recognition.

Using the year-end Billboard Hot Country charts from 2014 to 2018, Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that a measly 16 percent of artists across 500 top country songs were women. Additionally, no women over the age of 40 were represented.

Over the last five years, only 15 percent of Academy of Country Music Awards nominees in four major categories were female. Zero women have been nominated for either Entertainer or Songwriter of the year categories, and only two solo female acts have taken home the Entertainer of the Year trophy since 2000.

The data paints a bleak picture for new female artists, sending a clear message that there’s room at the top for just a select few.

And while female artists receiving airplay is few and far between, it’s certainly not because women aren’t producing good music.

Kacey Musgraves made headlines this year with her critically acclaimed album, Golden Hour. The project took home Album of the Year at the ACM Awards and CMA Awards, as well as Best Country Album and all-genre Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards. She is the first artist to achieve this feat since Taylor Swift did it almost a decade ago for her album, Fearless.

At this year’s ACM Awards, Musgraves also made history by picking up the ACM Award for Female Artist of the Year, ending Miranda Lambert’s nine-year reign in the category. She’s now only the third artist to hold the title since 2006.

Musgraves was virtually ignored by country radio before finding mainstream success. In fact, she had to fight for the freedom to release the music she wanted.

While accepting her honor at Variety’s Power of Women event earlier this month, Musgraves explained how she had to push for her first ever single, “Merry Go Round.”

“I was told that a debut female had to release something upbeat — the classic ‘Oh, we need something that everyone’s going to like,’” Musgraves said. “I was actually met with the word-for-word response from a grown man, one that runs a company, saying, ‘Well, sometimes in this business, you’ve just got to do things that you’re not proud of.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s where you and me are very different.’”

“Merry Go Round” went on to become Musgraves’ highest charting single to date, and won a Grammy for country song of the year.

In many ways, Musgraves’ story is reminiscent to that of Swift, who dominated the country music genre earlier in her career. Back in 2006, Swift fought her then-label, Big Machine Records, to release “Tim McGraw” and “Teardrops on My Guitar” to country radio consecutively as her first two singles. Her team urged her to instead release more upbeat music, but Swift refused.

Flash forward to 2019 and Swift is now a 10-time Grammy winner who just this week covers Time magazine as one of the “Most Influential People of 2019.” She is the only female artist to grace the cover three times.

Swift was also honored last December as one of Time Magazine’s People of the Year after she won her case against radio DJ, David Mueller, who she accused of groping her. Swift sued him for only a dollar, a symbolic gesture to demonstrate that it is not about money, but about the treatment of women.

Within months of the resolution, Mueller was rehired by KIX 92.7, a country radio station in Greenwood, Mississippi. The decision was a giant slap in the face to not only Swift, but all female artists and women in general, showing that men could face due process, be proven guilty and still reap no consequences.

But even with the odds stacked against them, female artists are achieving unprecedented heights across the board. In February, Ariana Grande become the second musical act in history to occupy the top three spots on the Billboard Hot 100. The rare feat hadn’t been accomplished since The Beatles in 1964.

When it comes to country music, female artists still have a long way to go. In fact, there are currently no women within the most recent Billboard Hot Country top 10. Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and Carrie Underwood are the only three female artists within the top 20.

“Even when I was growing up, I wished there [were] more women on the radio, and I had a lot more than they are today,” Underwood said earlier this year. “Think about all of the little girls that are sitting at home saying ‘I want to be a country music singer’… What do you tell them? How do you look at them and say, ‘Well, just work hard, sweetie, and you can do it,’ when that’s probably not the case right now?”

Billboard reported late last year that for the first time since 1990, its Country Airplay chart dated December 8, which pulls from mainstream country radio stations, had no women at all in the top 20.

So why does such a glaring disparity exist? One of the main reasons is that men working in country radio haven’t historically been interested in promoting the music of women.

In 2015, big wig country radio consultant Keith Hill stirred up controversy by telling country radio trade publication Country Radio Aircheck that country music radio stations should not include consecutive songs by women in their playlists.

“If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out,” Hill said. “The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component… Trust me, I play great female records, and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

Hill’s comments rightfully drew intense condemnation, and became known in the country music community as “Tomato-gate.” Country artists such as Lambert, Jennifer Nettles and Martina McBride spoke out against Hill. During the following CMA Music Fest in June, t-shirts were sold with the slogan “Let the Tomatoes Play.”

The issue quickly went viral online and prompted a range of efforts to address the gender gap and introduce new women artists. Industry executive Todd Cassetty founded Song Suffragettes, a program based in Nashville, Tennessee aiming to highlight new and emerging women singers and songwriters. Radio personality Bobby Bones announced the launch of an hour-long program dedicated solely to female country artists.

Although Hill’s comments garnered widespread public attention, the gender gap has actually worsened in the years following. The state of country music radio today remains exclusive and heavily tilted toward male artists.

Record label executives argue that radio just isn’t as important for their artists as it used to be, particularly in the age of streaming.

“We don’t sign artists who live and die by the radio,” John Esposito, chairman/CEO Warner Music Nashville, told Billboard.

Troy Tomlinson, the president/CEO at Sony/ATV Nashville, added, “Publishers make the best pitch they can with the appropriate artists who are cutting. It is a loss for our format when we have limited opportunities for great songs that are clearly written from a woman’s unique perspective.”

However, labels are in fact pushing songs to radio. Billboard found that in a sample of 236 studied country singles in a period between 2014 and 2015, only 26.8 percent of the songs that large labels pushed to country radio included women, and 17.9 percent of those songs were just those by solo female artists.

While it isn’t the be all end all, country radio is still an important vehicle for artists. Women’s voices deserve to be heard, and female artists offer unique perspectives that are lacking in the industry today.

Country music fans, it’s up to you to make a difference. Continue to stream women artists. Request their songs. Buy their albums and go to their concerts. Time is up for Nashville’s good ol’ boys club.

Giddy up guys and gals, or you might just miss out on the next country superstar.

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