It might not surprise anyone working in Nashville, but country music remains very much a male dominated industry, according to a new study from leading thinktank USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative.
The study looked at the gender and age of artists across the year-end Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart over a five year period, beginning in 2014. It also investigated the number of female songwriters on the country charts, as well as nominees at the Academy of Country Music Awards. The study's findings make for depressing reading for anyone hoping that the genre had moved far beyond the men-only era of yesteryear.
Key takeaways include female artists (including solo artists and members of duos and bands) accounting for just 16 percent of the top 500 country songs from 2014-2018 – roughly equivalent to 5 male artists for every 1 female.
When it comes to age, the study found that all of the top-performing women were under 40 years old, with Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert the oldest at 35.
In contrast 7 of the top 8 males, Luke Bryan, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean, Eric Church, Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and Dierks Bentley were all aged 40 or over. The sole exception was 29 year-old Thomas Rhett. The average mean age across the country charts for the survey period was 37 for males and 34 for females.
Among top performers, male artists appeared on the charts at least twice as many times as female artists. USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative additionally found that less than a sixth of all country duo members were women (15 percent), while women made up 15 percent of band members across the five year period.
Female songwriters fared little better, making up just 12 percent of credited writers on the top 200 country songs over a two-year survey period that saw researchers focus on just 2014 and 2018. The findings are marginally below that for female songwriters on the Hot 100 year-end charts over the same period.
When assessing Academy of Country Music Awards for gender, the study looked at the nominations in the categories of Entertainer of the Year, Songwriter of the Year, Duo of the Year and Group of the Year over the past five years.
For those four awards, it found that 15 percent of nominees were women and less than a sixth (11 percent) of all nominees for Entertainer of the Year were female. In reality, the report notes, only two female artists were nominated in the Entertainer of the Year category over the past five years: Carrie Underwood (once) and Miranda Lambert (twice). In several years, not one woman was nominated in the Entertainer and Songwriter of the Year categories.
The study concludes by recommending that the country music business needs to "undertake a collective effort to address disparities." Specific recommendations include labels reviewing data on who they are signing and how much is being spent on recording, marketing and promotion budgets to ensure that men and women start out their careers at the same level.
Terrestrial radio should also examine playlisting, address gender biases and set inclusion goals, while promoters and live entertainment companies are asked to think about what they can do to increase opportunities for female country artists and look at the demographics of country music audiences "to dispel myths about who supports male and female country artists."
"While the results of this study might not be surprising, they illuminate the fact that gender and age play a role in restricting the careers of female country music artists," says Dr. Stacy L. Smith, director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which counts Universal Music Group among its founding partners.
"We clearly have a problem," says Universal Music Group Nashville president Cindy Mabe. "Our job is to amplify our artists' voices and help them introduce their stories and connect to their audience. This has gotten increasingly harder and limiting over the last few years, especially for women and it has dramatically affected the perspective, reach and depth of our country music genre."
Mabe said Universal was committed to furthering diversity and inclusion in country music and would continue taking a "reflective, disciplined look into our own actions… so that all of our artists' voices are heard."
Other institutions have also vowed to work with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative and do more to address the gender disparity issue, including YouTube Music and Women Nation, Live Nation's newly created division focused on advancing females in the live music business.
"The work that the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative is doing is critical to identifying where the problem is. I'm eager to be a part of the solution to create equity for female artists, particularly in the country genre," said Ali Harnell, Women Nation president and Chief Strategy Officer, in a statement.
This year has also seen the Academy of Country Music launch its own diversity taskforce to increase inclusion.