With evidence continuing to mount that Nashville has a shortage of successful female artists right now, you might expect that Music Row has a corresponding lack of females in the executive ranks. You'd be wrong.
While it's true that fewer than a handful of women have ever headed major country labels, just below that top tier of label management key female executives abound, particularly in the A&R ranks. The industry's top trade group, the Country Music Assn., now has a female leader (Sarah Trahern) for the third time in its history, and some of the top music publishing houses in town are owned and operated by women.
In the artist management ranks, many of the format's top stars are directed by powerful women, among them Kerri Edwards (Luke Bryan), Ann Edelblute (Carrie Underwood), Marion Kraft (Miranda Lambert, Chris Young), Gail Gellman (Jennifer Nettles, Sugarland), Nancy Russell (Alan Jackson) and quite a few others.
Big Machine Label Group senior VP of A&R Allison Brown Jones notes that like herself, many of today's female country music executives got their start in the business at a time when there were some strong female role models to look up to.
When she entered the business in 1991 as A&R coordinator at BNA Records, Jones says, "Frances Preston was running BMI, Donna Hilley was running Sony/ ATV Tree -- which was the epitome of the good old boys club as far as writers and producers [go] -- and Connie Bradley was running ASCAP. All three of those women were my role models . . . In the publishing, [songwriter] and A&R world, there's been some amazing female executives that [did their jobs] with grace and passion. They had fun but still were respected and admired."
Leslie Fram, senior VP of music strategy at Viacom-owned TV network CMT, remains "perplexed" about why a lack of successful female artists is a continuing problem, but the culture of Music Row makes her take heart. "I spent over 20 years in rock/alternative and pop radio and was fortunate to work for companies like Susquehanna and Emmis that hired and promoted based on qualified candidates," she says. "Viacom is the same way . . . I'm encouraged to see the same on Music Row and hope that radio will continue to open its doors."
Now, the challenge remains for that gender balance to be reflected on the charts, as Underwood and other artists noted in last week's column. This week, just four female voices are heard in the top 30 songs on the Country Airplay chart.
Fram is on what she terms "a mission" to help break more female country stars with the network's "Next Women of Country" initiative. Launched in January 2013, it has given added exposure across all CMT platforms to up-and-comers including Brandy Clark, Holly Williams, Kacey Musgraves, Lauren Alaina, Ashley Monroe, Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery.
She calls the so-called "bro-country" themes of the current country music "a deep, dark hole we must get out of . . . Let's not forget that this format targets women. We shouldn't make this a male vs. female fight. Great songs/artists should be treated and considered equal. " Fram adds, "We as an industry need to change the mentality of 'a female slot' or 'female releases.' Female country music fans relate to country female artists and what they are saying. Male country music fans aren't turning off the radio when they hear a female vocalist."
But at least one radio programmer disagrees with Fram's last statement. After reading last week's column, Marc Patric, PD/music director of country CJJR (93.7 JR FM) Vancouver weighed in.
"I would love female artists on the radio more, really," he writes, "but everyone has to realize it's the listeners saying 'no thanks' to what is released today by female acts, not the program and music directors . . . I strive to play females but almost always find out my listeners don't want to hear it.
"The country females making it today are relating or winning over female listeners," he adds. "If you are a female artist you need to win over female listeners somehow by making them love you, or cheer for you, as a person and what you stand for. You can't just be a pretty face and a beautiful voice. In today's landscape, that's not enough."