Historic Chart Exposes Country Music’s Gender Disparity

While the leading women in country music and Americana woke up to multiple Grammy nominations on Friday (Dec. 7), the lack of women within the Top 20 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart made history this week.

For the first time since the survey launched in 1990, there are no women listed in the Top 20, and the only female artist closest to breaking the ranking is Carrie Underwood with “Love Wins,” at No. 22.

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The coming weeks are just as bleak for female airplay on country radio. Within the Top 60, there are only seven female acts listed following Underwood. They are Mindy Smith (guests Kenny Chesney’s “Better Boat,” at No. 27), new Grammy nominee Kelsea Ballerini (“Miss Me More,” No. 32), Hillary Lindsey (appears on Randy Houser’s “What Whiskey Does,” No. 40), Maddie & Tae (“Friends Don’t,” No. 41), Runaway June (“Buy My Own Drinks,” No. 44), Lauren Alaina (“Ladies of the ‘90s,” No. 47) and Carly Pearce (“Closer to You,” No. 53).

How this disparity between male-led singles and female-led songs came to fruition has been a long time in the making. And it’s not just country radio’s fault. Every country music entity has a part to play.

RJ Curtis, the new Exec. Director of the Country Radio Broadcasters who’s worked in country radio for 30 years and previously programmed KZLA/Los Angeles for 15, believes the problem is systemic.

“I hear so many people express frustration about the obvious disparity between male and female artist airplay,” Curtis tells CMT.com. “They’re not wrong about that, but I think it’s an oversimplification to conclude terrestrial radio is the sole culprit, or, automatically guilty as charged.

“This is a multi-layered, complicated situation,” he adds. “During the past two years in my previous role at [the country radio trade] All Access, I studied the numbers, and there are simply more male artists signed by labels than females, at a ratio of almost four-to-one. Radio does not participate in A&R decisions; does not sign artists; does not record them.”

Part of Curtis’ job at All Access was to speak regularly with country radio programmers nationwide. They are responsible for selecting which songs get added to broadcast playlists, which continue to shrink making country radio among the most competitive fields in Top 40 formats.

“All insisted airplay decisions were based entirely on the quality of music on a song-by-song basis, not gender,” he says. “That evaluation process was described similarly, whether I asked male or female programmers. Music taste is subjective.

“Where radio can play a productive and bold role is not simply playing all the music by all the female artists, but a lot more of the most impactful female artist and songs.”

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The reason why music fans should care about this issue is that country radio is still a significant player in determining their favorite artist’s success. Major festivals, tours and television shows primarily book artists with recognizable radio hits. But in today’s landscape, the only artists getting most of the airplay are men.

Influencers are working to bring positive change for women in country music. The 2018 CMT Artists of the Year special was the first of its kind to honor not just female solo artists, but also performers in bands including Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott and Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman. The sixth annual CMT Next Women of Country showcase in November welcomed nine new additions and announced the sixth CMT Next Women of Country tour with Cassadee Pope, Clare Dunn and Hannah Ellis.

CMT’s Senior Vice President of Music & Talent, Leslie Fram, spearheaded the Next Women program after seeing a need for country music women to be heard.

“When I moved to Nashville seven years ago to work for CMT, I was coming from rock-alternative radio and some years in pop,” Fram recalls. “I discovered Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark and fell in love with their pure voices and songs about heartache, coupled with true storytelling.

“Finding out that these artists and so many other women were not being supported was the impetus for CMT’s ‘Next Women Of Country’ franchise. CMT has always supported female artists so we wanted to find an avenue to amplify this exposure for all the great new female talent in town.

“Coming from radio — a male-dominated business, I found that women both on the business side and artists had to work harder to get their voices heard, earn respect and have the ability to grow. I want to continue to fight for equality and help create an equal playing field for these artists. It’s important and vital for the future of our format.”

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CMT’s Cody Alan is hopeful that success among artists of color indicates a shift toward a more diverse country radio format.

“With Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown both climbing the charts to No. 1 this year,” Alan says, “it’s time to wrap our arms around talented artists for their abilities, and not discard them for their gender, race or simply not ‘fitting in the box.’ I am proud that CMT is leading the charge on our platforms. Our Artists of the Year special was a great example of how to truly embrace the influence of female stars in country music — past, present and future. The women of country add a perspective the music needs.

“On the radio with CMT After MidNite and CMT Radio Live,” Alan adds, “we’re also dedicating air time and effort to waving the flag for females and diversity. By the way, all this is happening not just because the artist is female, but because female artists are making great music.”

Bobby Bones, the host of the nationally syndicated Bobby Bones Show and a recent Dancing With the Stars champion, has an hour-long national radio show, Women of iHeartCountry, featuring music from established female artists and up-and-comers. When CMT.com spoke to Bones at a Musicians On Call benefit in October, he advocated for fair listens of all music.

“For me, I would see so many awesome female artists not even getting a shot,” he said. “And if you get a shot, then, whatever happens, happens. I just saw very underserved artists, and I think everything should have a fair listen. To me, it’s not so much about, ‘Is it a dude? Or is it a woman? Is it a band?’ It’s, ‘How can there be that many people that aren’t getting a fair shake?’”

Bones also said he believes record labels could do a better job in developing rising talent.

“I don’t think there’s anyone that’s actually aiding the women,” he said. “But I think it’s time for people to say, ‘Hey let’s take a look.’ The labels haven’t been developing artists. The labels won’t bring someone on unless they have an exact place for them. But there are 72 dudes who sound exactly the same. But also I think it goes back to what’s been successful in the past. Five, six years ago there was a sound that was successful, so they try to replicate that.”

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But country radio isn’t without its bad apples. In a 2015 interview with the country radio trade, Country Aircheck, radio consultant Keith Hill infamously compared country radio to a salad where the lettuce is male artists and the tomatoes are females. In other words, he believed female-led songs should be used sparingly.

The danger in publishing comments like Hill’s is even though it’s just one person’s sexist opinion, imbalanced ideas like this are sometimes internalized by people in positions of power who can make decisions that can influence positive change.

For example, several radio programmers and music supervisors attended the Live in the Vineyard festival where a 15-year-old Tegan Marie crushed a Saturday morning brunch with a series of originals, including her latest single, “I Know How to Make a Boy Cry.” Her songs, each one just as evocative as the number before, made her the obvious festival standout. But as attendees settled into the bus ride to the next destination, one radio programmer, who just signed a multi-year contract with major radio company that oversees 80 country stations nationwide, was overheard saying, “The only thing about female voices is that they just don’t cut through.”

“We all have to play a part — whether you work for a record label, management company, streaming service, radio, etc.,” Fram says. “We have to stop putting a band-aid on this issue. It’s time to be bold and break some rules along the way. The self-fulling prophecy of, ‘Women don’t want to hear women,’ ‘Women don’t stream,’ ‘Women’s voices don’t cut through,’ ‘The songs are just not great,’ ‘Women don’t sell beer,’ has to stop.

“Labels are still signing women,” she adds. “Publishing companies are still signing women. Yet there seems to be a big disconnect with people who program music. The fact that there are no females in the Top 20 is criminal [because] the level of talent in this town is beyond astounding. I am hopeful that the gatekeepers will open their ears, go to some shows and watch the fans to truly understand the level of engagement that is happening with fans.”

In where to go from here, the overall business has to be the change it wants to see and have patience. As Jason Isbell affirmed with CMT.com in 2017, revolutions in music take time.

Lauren Tingle is a Tennessean and storyteller who eats music for breakfast, lunch and dinner. When she’s not writing or rocking out, she enjoys yoga and getting lost in the great outdoors.