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?
Experienced programmers are just as likely to agree empathetically and shrug as they are to say there’s a quality issue with the music, though many have been careful to distance themselves from Hill’s statements.
Part of the problem stems from the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the monolithic radio chains that sprung up in its wake, a timeline that generally overlaps with the decline of women on radio after the Nineties boom. Certainly, that bit of legislation helped wrest some autonomy from the local markets and centralized a lot of programming decisions.
If that’s a depressing thought, it may help to banish the notion that radio has any responsibility whatsoever to promote great art or gender equity. Radio’s goal is to sell advertising, which is wholly dependent on ratings. Following a by-the-books approach is — at least from radio’s perspective — the most dependable way to maintain pace or at least keep a job in a competitive marketplace.
However, it’s hard not to look at the success of artists like Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark and Ashley Monroe — all of whom have enjoyed strong sales and touring without radio support — and feel like something is askew. People’s hunger for hearing female artists hasn’t diminished, but perhaps migrated to other platforms, as new Sony Music Nashville signee Maren Morris’ rapidly accumulated six million-plus Spotify streams suggests.
So where does that leave us?
There hasn’t been some sweeping, overnight corrective — that might have been too much to expect from a radio format slow to embrace change. In addition to the industry’s efforts, artists have taken their own stands. Miranda Lambert used her superstar clout to organize an all-female bill on her fall Roadside Bars and Pink Guitars Tour, while CMT’s Next Women of Country initiative put Jana Kramer and Kelsea Ballerini on the road together. On the radio front, better days may well be ahead.
Ballerini was an early hopeful sign when she became the first solo female artist since Underwood nearly 10 years earlier to have her debut single reach Number One with “Love Me Like You Mean It.” Her current single “Dibs” is aimed squarely at the Top 10, as is Jana Kramer’s sincerely great “I Got the Boy.”
Perhaps most encouraging is Cam, whose gorgeously stark ballad “Burning House” set playlists ablaze when syndicated host Bobby Bones played it on his show and immediately garnered passionate feedback. Already confirmed platinum for sales, the song appears destined to be a Billboard Number One and the robust first-week sales of Cam’s album Untamed are equally promising.
Still, knowing all this, we can’t hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner, pat ourselves on the collective back and move on. When Cam, Maren Morris, Clare Dunn and Mickey Guyton are all scoring back-to-back chart-toppers with the regularity of Cole Swindell and Thomas Rhett, we’ll know for sure something has changed.
In the interim, country fans on either side of the gender divide can speak up. If radio is dependent on ratings for survival, fans invested in hearing women on the radio should be letting stations know how important that is for them to continue tuning in. If those requests are ignored, the rapid movement of people away from country radio will force a radical makeover of programming methodology. Perhaps we’ll see more online research, and the grace to allow songs time to develop, instead of a knee-jerk dismissal. Hopefully, radio will be willing to revise its membership policy to be more about, in Musgraves’ “Good Ol’ Boys Club” lyrics, how good you are.
There’s still a long road ahead. Changing course is a slow process that requires long-held attitudes to be broken down and a willingness to celebrate minor victories. In 2015, every one of those victories — no matter how seemingly insignificant — was crucial.