It’s an understatement to say that the last year was a bad one for the Grammy Awards when it came to gender inclusivity. Women have never exactly been afforded equal representation at the annual event, but when a study from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative found that only nine percent of nominees between 2013 and 2018 were women, it forced the conversation to a tipping point. Add in Recording Academy president Neil Portnow’s hall-of-fame flub of asking women to “step up,” and the awards were faced with one of two options: dismiss the criticism as bad PR and hope it blows over, or actually try and do something.
They chose the latter, launching a task force to examine the “various barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities throughout the music industry and, specifically, across Recording Academy operations and policies.” They also worked to change the fundamentals of Grammy voting (from the number of nominees allowed in the four main categories to the composition of the voting committee itself). While the outcome was not perfect (awards shows rarely are) women — from Kacey Musgraves and Janelle Monáe to Cardi B and Maren Morris — were well represented when the nominations for the 61st annual ceremonies were announced last week.
At the same time, country music’s dearth of women on radio and at the CMA Awards is a problem that shows no indication of getting better. In fact, it may be getting worse: for the first time in the history of Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart, there are no women in the Top 20. Nor were any women nominated for Entertainer of the Year at November’s CMAs. There were no solo women up for Single of the Year either, and, just one, Lauren Alaina, included in the New Artist race. Conversely, it’s a comfortable time to be a male artist in country, singing a song with “girl” in the title — no less than three such titles, and a fourth with “she,” are currently in the Top 20.
The major difference between the Grammy world and the country world, however, couldn’t be more apparent. The Grammys saw a problem and made a plan to address it, while the Music Row establishment has yet to take any concrete action to course-correct one of the genre’s most disturbing trends.
In the case of the CMA Awards, the problem starts with the fundamentals. The Grammys vote by committee, tasking a selected group of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences) members with working together to select the nominees, while the CMAs are more of a free-for-all, open to all voting members from the very early nomination stages. When it comes to the final voting rounds, the country industry reportedly often votes in blocs, with labels and talent agencies urging their employees to put their vote behind a preordained artist. A simple switch to committee voting within CMA members would instantly yield more equitable results, particularly if the committees were designed to be inclusive.
But the awards-show inequity pales to what’s afflicting the country airwaves, and the degree to which Music Row refuses to rock the boat — even when it comes to meaningful progress toward gender parity — in favor of not angering the decision makers at radio. Put simply, the inequality issue is one of which everyone is aware, and yet no entity capable of enacting change — from the CMA to Country Radio Seminar — has publicly floated the idea of country’s own task force.
For this year’s Grammys, the voting committee selected women that they felt deserved the nominations, independent of radio play. Nominees Morris, Musgraves, Margo Price and Ashley McBryde all had minimal airplay for their nominated country/Americana projects, reflecting artistry recognized outside of the airwaves.
While the CMA Awards did likewise when it came to voting Musgraves’ Golden Hour Album of the Year, it will always be difficult for women artists in country music to be in fair contention for prizes like Entertainer of the Year and Single of the Year without the benefit of radio play and the resulting chain of success that comes from that marketability.
But the 61st Grammy nominations demonstrate that it is still possible to improve antiquated, unjust systems. The Recording Academy’s Portnow, scorned by artists like Lorde and Pink in the wake of his “step up” comments, saw real consequences for his industry and reputation, so his organization made a change. If the country industry wants to repair the crack that is endemic gender inequality, it too will have to become proactive, and take an aggressive stance in 2019. In other words, it’s time for country music to “step up.”