In January 2015, Capitol Nashville artist Mickey Guyton released her debut single “Better Than You Left Me” to country radio. USA Today proclaimed that the singer’s “powerhouse vocals could provide a rallying point for programmers hoping to break the bro-country logjam.” But despite rave reviews, Guyton has yet to become a household name. Perhaps that’s because, as Guyton recently revealed on Twitter, her “powerhouse” single was dropped from playlists after being told that country radio didn’t feel like it had room for two ballads by two female artists.
This type of story — of the limited space for women — is all too common in country music. For years, women have been told that there is only one spot for women on playlists and label rosters, that they should avoid releasing ballads, that their music isn’t good enough and that their songs cannot be played back-to-back.
In a May 2015 interview, a radio consultant encouraged program directors to limit the number of songs by women in their playlists to make ratings. Women were referred to as the “tomatoes” of an all-male (the lettuce) salad. In other words, women are the garnish and their music should be played sparingly. Much has been written about what is now referred to as #TomatoGate, but little has changed for women in country music. In January, “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee” investigated the phenomenon and confirmed, surprise surprise, almost nothing has changed.
For years, women have been told that there is only one spot for women on playlists and label rosters and that their songs cannot be played back-to-back.
In a series of studies published in consultation with the woman’s advocacy group WOMAN Nashville, I dug into airplay data to better understand how songs by women factor into radio programming. The results were startling. The studies revealed a 66 percent decline in the number of songs by women on the Yearend Airplay reports between 2000 and 2018, as well as significant disparity in the total spins (plays) accorded to songs by men and women — increasing from a 2 to 1 ratio in 2000 to 9.7 to 1 in 2018. A second study parsed the spin counts by their time of day, revealing that songs by women received just 8.9 percent of the daytime spins in 2018.
The situation remained relatively unchanged in 2019. My latest research shows a minor increase in the number of songs by women on weekly charts by the end of the year, but little change at the level of song rotation. Focusing on airplay data for 2019, I found a 1.2 percent increase in daily spins for songs by women last year, from 8.9 percent in 2018 to 10.1 percent in 2019. Unfortunately, the distribution in the daytime remains nearly identical over the last two years. In fact, the 1.2 percent increase occurred in the evening and overnight time slots. Any increase in the amount of spins for songs by women in 2019 is thus neutralized by the time of day when the songs are played. As a result, the potential impact on an audience is negligible and women’s voices continue to be nearly invisible to radio listeners.
This type of programming marginalizes female artists and ghettoizes their songs to time slots that have the lowest percentage of listeners — i.e. when the majority of the listening audience is sleeping. In fact, women were so overwhelmingly underrepresented in 2019 that it was likely that listeners could tune-in to their local station for over an hour and not hear a single song by a woman.
Why does this matter? First, there is a direct relationship between the amount of times a song is played each day and its ability to break into the weekly charts. With just 10 percent of the daily spins in 2019, it should not be surprising to know that according to my calculations only 16.7 percent of the songs on the Billboard Country Airplay charts were by women, and songs by women are nearly absent from the top positions of the chart — with an average of 10 percent of the songs in both the top 20 and top 10 positions of the weekly charts. Airplay and chart activity is crucial exposure for artists — especially new artists, as it is linked to other opportunities, including label and publishing deals, touring and festival opportunities, award nominations, fan clubs, merchandising and more. Naturally, the declining presence of women on radio evolves into a sustained, industry-wide deficit.
Second, airplay increases audience familiarity. These studies show that women are not receiving enough airplay — in any part of the day or night — to be discovered, to build fanbases, to become familiar with audiences. Kingston, Ontario’s Pure Country 99 program director Brittany Thompson recently admitted that country radio does “a better job [at] establishing and promoting male artists.” Audiences respond more favorably to what they hear and know, and audiences know songs by men. By limiting airplay for songs by women to less than 10 percent of the daytime spins, radio is not offering women the same platform for development and exposure as male artists, making their voices and stories unfamiliar to audiences.
Concern about the growing inequality in the genre led Thompson to pledge equal airplay on her station, and Leslie Fram, senior vice-president of music and talent at CMT, to pledge 50/50 representation for its video hours. By including more songs by women in their programming, both platforms are taking an important step toward creating equal opportunity for women in the industry and reintroducing audiences to their stories and voices.
The disappearance of women from main channels of dissemination — radio, streaming, tours, festivals — and near invisibility on the charts leads many to falsely assume that only a handful of women are participating in the genre or that women are not producing high-quality music. This is insulting and false. And it’s time for a change. It’s time for women to have access to the same opportunities as male artists. It’s time to increase the 10 percent throughout the day and across all facets of the industry so that women can be heard and seen by country music fans.
And this is still only part of the story. As Marissa R. Moss recently reported for Rolling Stone, this ongoing discussion centers on a white, cis-gendered perspective that leaves out queer and transgendered voices, and artists of color. While we do not yet have the data to address a more inclusive approach to gender identity (the absence of such data is suggestive of a larger socio-cultural issue at play in programming), it is imperative that we acknowledge the underrepresentation of artists of color in this genre.
The massive controversy over Lil Nas X’s single “Old Town Road” briefly shone a very bright spotlight on the issue, but as with female artists, systemic change has been hard to come by. Just 2.5 percent of the songs on the Yearend Airplay Reports over the last decade were by artists of color — the majority of which were performed by men. Only 1 of the 940 songs to chart in that decade was by a woman of color — Guyton’s “Better Than You Left Me,” which ranked at #110 on the 2015 Yearend Report. Women of color are not just underrepresented in this culture, they are essentially excluded.