I read an article in Country Aircheck last night, where prominent radio consultant Keith Hill advises his clients (aka radio stations) not only to not play female artists back-to-back, but to even further lower the amount they play female artists at all. For those of you who don’t listen to country radio or pay attention to the charts, let me tell you the amount they play female artists is already criminally low. In fact, in 2014 only 18% of the top 100 songs were female-voiced. Hill argues that playing too many female artists will result in lower ratings. As you can expect, Twitter subsequently blew up, referring to the following quote as #SaladGate.
Males are the lettuce and females are the tomatoes of country radio’s salad. Yes, folks, country radio in the USA in 2015 really is this sexist.
Did you know there has not been a solo female #1 on Billboard’s US Country Airplay chart since Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away” in October 2012? That’s more than two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, we’ve had several fantastic releases from new female artists, including Kacey Musgraves (her gold-selling single “Follow Your Arrow” didn’t even crack the top 40 on country radio), Brandy Clark (who scored two 2015 Grammy nods, including Best New Artist, despite being completely ignored by country radio), and Ashley Monroe (whose solo material is criminally underplayed, but who scored a #1 when she featured on Blake Shelton’s single “Lonely Tonight”).
Even some of the more pop-friendly new female country artists are struggling to make headway at radio. Katie Armiger hasn’t been able to crack the top 50 with her last few releases, and Lindsay Ell made the top 15 on Canadian country radio with her debut single “Trippin’ On Us” but peaked at #46 in the US. Mickey Guyton’s “Better Than You Left Me” has yet to claw its way into the top 30 on Country Airplay, despite debuting in January with the highest one-week add total for a debut artist’s first single in Country Aircheck history. Raelynn couldn’t quite crack the top 15 with her debut single “God Made Girls,” peaking at #16, and her current single “For a Boy,” released in March, isn’t even in this week’s top 60. Kelsea Ballerini shows perhaps the most radio promise of any new solo female act, with “Love Me Like You Mean It” squeezing into the top 10 at #8 this week.
The closest thing we’ve had to a solo female #1 is Maddie & Tae’s debut single “Girl in a Country Song,” which parodied the sexist way female characters in today’s hit country songs are portrayed. It hit #1 in December (their follow-up second single “Fly” has been on the charts for 17 weeks and has finally cracked the top 30).
Even Carrie and Miranda Lambert, the two most dominant female voices on country radio, can’t make it to #1 these days. Carrie’s last single “Something in the Water” was #1 for seven weeks on Hot Country Songs (which takes into account sales and streaming along with airplay), but only made it to #3 on Country Airplay. (Her latest release “Little Toy Guns” sits at #5 on this week’s chart.) Miranda’s last single “Little Red Wagon” stalled at #16 back in March (her fourth ‘Platinum’ single has yet to be announced or released, but is rumoured to be her collaboration with Little Big Town, “Smokin’ & Drinkin’”). Even Carrie and Miranda’s collaboration, “Somethin’ Bad,” couldn’t hit the top 5. Sure, the quality of that song could be (and has been) debated, but that didn’t seem to affect Florida Georgia Line’s “Sun Daze”. Nor is it likely to affect Luke Bryan’s latest critically-panned release “Kick the Dust Up,” which I’m sure will be his next #1 smash.
I’m not saying that quality shouldn’t be taken into consideration, but female artists are held to a completely different standard than male artists, and even when they prove with their sales that listeners want to hear their music, they still aren’t given a fair chance. Kacey, for example, outsold all of the breakthrough male artists since her 2013 debut except for Florida Georgia Line. Yet she hasn’t been able to score another top 10 single (heck, even a top 20 single) since her first single “Merry Go Round” hit #10 in March of 2013. Her newest single “Biscuits,” which is serving as the lead single from her highly-anticipated sophomore album Pageant Material (due June 23rd), is barely hanging in there at #47 on this week’s Country Airplay chart.
Defenders of the status quo use the argument that female songs don’t test well on country radio, and obviously radio isn’t going to play songs their listeners don’t want to hear. But what isn’t acknowledged here is the caveat about familiarity. Songs and voices that are familiar to listeners are much more likely to test well. Since female artists are rarely heard on country radio, it makes sense that listeners would give higher negative scores to female-voiced songs. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Interestingly, despite having higher negatives, female-voiced songs tend to have high favourite ratings, meaning those who do like the songs like them a lot.
And despite Mr. Hill’s accusations, female fans are not the problem.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on radio charts and callout surveys, but it’s pretty clear that over the last several years country radio has been catering to a very specific target demographic: males aged 18-34. That is evident with the abundance of hit songs that fall into the category of “bro-country”. Many of the listeners in that demo are new to country radio, having transitioned from the rock format. They are the demo with the biggest negative impact on female-voiced songs, consistently rating female songs low. Female fans, alternatively, tend to rate female songs much higher than their male listener counterparts. (Check out some of the data compiled by chart-watcher 43dudleyvillas over on Pulse Music Board: here, here and here.) Callout scores don’t support Mr. Hill’s notion that female listeners are the ones holding back female artists at country radio; they show that young female listeners are in fact the driving force supporting the edgier artists and songs.
COUNTRY RADIO, IF YOU PLAY NO WOMEN, YOUR AUDIENCE WILL WANT NO WOMEN. YOU CREATED THE PROBLEM. YOU CAN HELP SOLVE IT TOO.
— Grady Smith (@gradywsmith) May 27, 2015
With country radio ratings finally beginning to wane, the time for change is now. The industry needs to look long-term at what will help country radio thrive, and many listeners and chart-watchers argue that variety on radio airwaves is one huge step in ensuring the format’s sustainability. I think both listeners and radio programmers are ready for it. Industry veterans Skip Bishop and R.J. Curtis agree, telling Rolling Stone earlier this year that women are “going to be the next trend” and “this could be the year of the female.”
Considering the same was said at the beginning of 2014, let’s see if it actually comes to fruition. One can only hope. After all, we are heading into tomato season.