One of the most biting tracks from Kacey Musgraves’ 2015 release Pageant Material found the acerbic singer-songwriter railing against cronyism of the “Good Ol’ Boys Club.” While she likely meant it as commentary on any system that favors nepotism over hard work and talent, Musgraves still chose to fire her arrows in a year when one of country music’s most dominant narratives was the struggle faced by female artists for airplay.
This discussion turned into a full-on food fight in May when radio consultant Keith Hill told Country Aircheck that women were like the tomatoes of the country music salad — to be used sparingly — while the men were the foundational lettuce. Naturally, lovers of Caprese salad scoffed at this comparison, but artists and industry leaders passionately blasted Hill for comments that were at best tone deaf and, at worst, a confirmation of institutionalized sexism.
It’s a debate that’s been present in country at least as far back as Kitty Wells’ “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonky Angels,” which became the first solo female Number One on the Billboard chart in 1952 when the country chart was already eight years old. Though the matter seemingly came to a head in 2015, the lack of females on country radio is an ongoing and complex problem that’s not going to correct itself overnight or by having lots of feels about how wrong it is. Even so, there are some signs that it’s slowly trending in the right direction as we close out 2015.
Just one year ago, it didn’t look that way at all. In 2014, Cassadee Pope and Maddie & Tae were the only women not named Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert to reach the Top 10 of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. Through the first half of 2015, RaeLynn was the only new solo female artist to crack the Top 20 and her debut “God Made Girls” stalled in the teens.
One particularly disconcerting aspect of Hill’s statements involved the call-out research methodology used by programmers to make decisions about which songs they add. In short, stations call listeners and play a snippet of a song to see how that person reacts. Hill’s claim that songs by women don’t research well with the majority female audience listening to country radio was a notion that — if true —laid the blame squarely on listeners.
In response, a committee known as Change the Conversation comprising industry leaders like CMT’s Leslie Fram and artist manager Tracy Gershon commissioned a study from political economist and Stanford Ph.D. candidate (not to mention devoted country fan) Devarati Ghosh that called into question the effectiveness of that research methodology.
Examining eight-year increments starting with 1992, Ghosh noted that the spread of women and men enjoying Top 20 hits was briefly equal. In the heyday of Shania Twain, Faith Hill and Martina McBride, 44 percent of female artists and 42 percent of male artists introduced in that year enjoyed a Top 20 hit. The female side of that equation dropped off at the start of the millennium and plummeted ever downward from there. By the current period that began in 2008, only 32 percent of new female artists were having a Top 20 hit — compared to 57 percent of the guys. Even worse, almost none of them ever scored a second hit. Bottom line: the same research methods were used in the era — the Nineties — that produced some of the greatest, most successful women the format has ever known. What’s so different about the present?