When Miranda Lambert gave a solo performance of “Tin Man” at the ACM Awards in April, the response from all corners was immediate and positive, bordering on rapturous. The song, an aching meditation on vulnerability that opens the second disc of Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, instantly spiked on the iTunes downloads chart and was a top added track among reporting stations the following week, effectively knocking her more upbeat single “We Should Be Friends” from its perch. But a full three months later, with RCA’s considerable promotion muscle behind it, “Tin Man” has only just made it to Number 35 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart – still the industry standard for label promotion departments among the many different country songs charts.
To date, the highest-charting single The Weight of These Wings has produced is “Vice,” which was released last July ahead of the album’s November debut. Bolstered by an amazingly cinematic video, that song peaked just outside the Top 10 at Number 11 before disappearing from view. And the even more radio-friendly follow-up “We Should Be Friends” never made it out of the 20s before “Tin Man” stole the focus. Yet, in spite of this radio recalcitrance toward Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings singles, the album was certified platinum for sales of 1 million on July 10th.
A couple notes on that: The Weight of These Wings is a double album, which means each disc in the package counts individually for sales – that is, the collection only has to hit 500,000 total to be considered platinum. Presently, some sources list the sales total around 370,000, so the platinum designation may rest on a high volume of on-demand streams and individual track downloads (10 track sales equal one album unit). Whatever the case, it’s still an impressive amount of records, and one of country’s few platinum albums released in 2016 – a fact that exposes the glaring disconnect of country radio. If some of the genre’s most vital, creative performers are selling plenty of records without radio support, why is the medium still the sun at the center of the country music universe?
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On this week’s Country Airplay chart, six of the Top 60-charting songs are by solo females.
It’s hard not to link this issue with the overall lack of women on country radio, a popular, if polarizing, point of contention. In the immediate wake of Tomatogate – when a radio exec compared female artists to tomatoes in country radio’s salad – and the related movements like Change the Conversation (which actually began in 2014, before Tomatogate tossed gas on the fire) that were created to address the problem, it seemed as if the country industry as a whole was taking positive steps to address the problem. No one expected an overnight transformation but now, two years on from the original firestorm, the situation is worse and speaks to just how deeply embedded the problem is in the culture.
On this week’s Billboard Country Airplay chart (dated July 29th), six of the Top 60-charting songs are by solo females. The highest of those is newcomer Carly Pearce, the subject of a recent Washington Post story about the rigors of radio tours, whose debut single “Every Little Thing” just reached Number 19. Maren Morris is close behind at Number 25 with “I Could Use a Love Song” and, strangely, also appeared last week at Number One as an integral part of the Thomas Rhett collaboration “Craving You” (a song that sounds like M83’s “Midnight City” with a twang). “Craving You” – a track on which she provides harmony vocals opposite a multi-Number Ones male star – is Morris’ first chart-topper, not her own soulful “My Church,” a smash by pretty much any other metric, which peaked at Number Nine on the Country Airplay chart. Likewise, her kinetic, neon-splattered “80s Mercedes” stalled at Number 11. Despite the Airplay falters, Morris’ excellent debut LP Hero has been certified gold for sales of 500,000, a robust accomplishment in this era of decreased album buying.
Elsewhere, women are in the bottom half of the Top 60. Below “Tin Man,” there’s Kelsea Ballerini at Number 44 with her new single “Legends,” one that may make it all the way to the top, as Ballerini’s been the odd woman whose songs radio doesn’t seem to mind playing. There’s Brooke Eden’s “Act Like You Don’t,” a fourth single attempt and her highest-charting so far at Number 49. Rounding things out at Number 55 is Lindsay Ell’s “Waiting on You,” a John Mayer-influenced track that stakes her claim as a bona fide guitar hero. Lauren Alaina’s “Doin’ Fine” has yet to crack the Top 60, though her voice appears on Kane Brown’s “What Ifs” at Number 20. (Brown, a male country performer, is another who has enjoyed remarkable sales without major radio support up to this point.)
So what is country radio playing right now? The Number One song for this new week is Dylan Scott’s “My Girl,” a composite of virtually every Luke Bryan song from the last five years (the titular “girl” raps to Eminem, wears a ball cap, sips Crown and Sprite, holds babies, thanks Jesus, etc.). Sam Hunt’s silly but catchy as hell “Body Like a Backroad” is at Number Four, but it’s been Number One atop the more inclusive Hot Country Songs chart – which factors in streaming and digital sales, as well as radio play – for more than 20 weeks now. Cole Swindell’s abysmal “Flatliner” is also in the Country Airplay hunt at Number Eight, because the format evidently needed one more song about a nameless woman who looked really good doing something. The two female voices in the Top 10 come from Carrie Underwood, serving as a foil to Keith Urban on “The Fighter,” and Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott on “You Look Good.”
It’s as if the powers in radio have all silently agreed: women are fine to put on the air, but only as crude sketches in a song performed by a man.
The funny thing is, this situation isn’t even good for artists like Dylan Scott. His debut album, which came out last August and will be re-released as a “deluxe” edition this August 4th, has sold just north of 30,000 units. “My Girl” has taken 46 weeks of being on the chart (not including the time it took to actually break into the Top 60) to reach Number One, at what one presumes is a considerable recoupable promotion expense. It’s an increasingly rare (and almost exclusively male) group of artists who can release three singles in one year, building familiarity with their catalog and then put out a new album within 12 to 18 months.
Never one to miss an opportunity for self-promotion, iHeartMedia syndicated personality Bobby Bones has positioned himself as part of the solution by creating “Download a Female Friday,” encouraging listeners to go buy tracks from female singers. Bones was likely spurred to launch this campaign after seeing his girlfriend Lindsay Ell have a radio station visit to an iHeart rival awkwardly canceled in June because of her “personal life.”
Breakthrough performer Margo Price was skeptical of Bones’ approach, saying it effectively ghettoized women and reaffirmed the idea that they belong in some separate space from the men. “I don’t want to be called a ‘female musician,’ I want to be called a musician,” she tweeted. Other performers, such as Aubrie Sellers, were happy just to have a little more visibility and, as she noted, “consumption” of their work. For the record, Price and Sellers both released singular albums in 2016, with varying degrees of consumption – Price’s Midwest Farmer’s Daughter has notched over 50,000 units at this point while Sellers, who released New City Blues independently before signing with Warner Bros., has yet to crack 10,000.
Bones’ Friday initiative undoubtedly has a positive short-term impact on sales, particularly when it comes to less established artists. And let it also be said that radio does continue to help sell a lot of records for artists like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, men who’ve been shrewd enough to anticipate where radio might head and mold their sound to fit (an approach that doesn’t really seem to benefit women who attempt it in the slightest). But that’s a narrow, obstructed view of what’s happening genre-wide at the moment, with a radio climate that doesn’t allow more than one or two women at any time to have chart-topping hits – Ballerini seems to be the chosen one right now – while also shutting out newly-minted superstar Chris Stapleton.
It’s extremely difficult for younger artists trying to find that crucial foothold that will help them rally an audience in their favor. Radio hits used to be the way to do that. But the recent work – and success – of Lambert, Morris and Price might be a sign that they needn’t bother with the medium at all.