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New Country Music Study Examines Scarcity of Women on Radio

USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative paints a bleak picture of the last five years in country chart history

Country music gender imbalance, Shania Twain

Shania Twain, one of country music's all-time best-selling artists, struggled to get radio airplay with her comeback album 'Now.'

Rmv/Shutterstock

It’s well established that women in country music are underrepresented when it comes to radio, award nominations and headline spots at festivals, and now Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative have some new research data to back it up. Using the year-end Billboard Hot Country charts from 2014 to 2018 and the last five years of the Academy of Country Music Awards, they found that 16% of artists across 500 top country songs from 2014 to 2018 were women, that no women over the age of 40 were represented and that only 15% of ACM nominees in four major categories from 2015 to 2019 were female – with zero women nominated in Entertainer and Songwriter of the Year categories.

The study also focused on songwriters, finding that “women represented 12% of songwriters across the two years studied,” and that “one positive finding emerging from this report is that female artists were more likely to work with female songwriters than male artists were across that period.”

Some of the most compelling new data uncovered by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is their research when it comes to age: they found that “the mean age for top performing male solo artists was 42 whereas the mean age for top performing female solo artists was 29….thus, career longevity is much shorter for female than male artists.” With songs from artists like Shania Twain failing to chart while Kenny Chesney still consistently has hits, and with women seeming to fall from the charts completely if they are over 40, that inherent ageism is an area of real concern.

The report also offered suggestions in terms of how the industry can take collective action to make change: asking labels, the touring/promotional sectors, radio and streaming companies to take a hard look at their own data and practices. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative also announced commitments from YouTube Music, Live Nation’s Women Nation and Universal Music to take steps towards gender parity by, in the case of Universal, “examining its own data on recruitment, signing and promotion of new male and female talent.”

The gender gap on the Hot Country Song chart has been well documented in various other academic papers and research: Dr. Jada Watson of University of Ottawa issued a paper last year called “Gender on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, 1996-2016,” that examined an even wider swath and took a look at not only representation, but how long songs stay at the top of the chart once they get there, and to changes in the chart’s methodology that adversely affected outcomes for women. “The results of this study point to a significant gender imbalance in the genre: male artists outperform women by a significant margin in every possible angle, from the overall statistics to annual and weekly movement in the Number One position,” Dr. Watson wrote. “Yet radio airplay and Billboard chart activity are only one part of the story regarding gender inequality in the country industry.”

Other reports on country radio have been issued by Devarati Ghosh, who worked under the name of Windmills Country, and by advocacy group WOMAN Nashville, who looked at the myth that “women don’t want to hear women” in their “Breaking the Bowl” report. Change the Conversation, lead by Leslie Fram, Tracy Gershon and Beverly Keel, has also been actively pushing for gender parity in Nashville since 2014.

One area where the Annenberg report falters is in examining only the Hot Country charts — which comprises streaming data and sales — instead of Country Airplay, which is more indicative of tastemaker and programmer trends alone. Focusing on Hot Country unfortunately relieves some of the pressure on radio itself and decision-makers: in other words, the ones who carry most of the responsibility for perpetuating the myths and practices that prevent women from achieving the kind of success and airplay afforded to their male peers. Should Annenberg seek to continue their research in country music, addressing Country Airplay and soliciting pledges from radio itself would be a logical and effective next step.

“The current reality in country music does not have to be the future of the genre,” the report concludes. “By taking action as an industry, executives, programmers, advocates, and even consumers can leverage their influence to create a space that produces great music— by male and female artists.”

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