Nashville Group Looks to Change the Conversation Around Women in Country

Change The Conversation
Courtesy Photo

An assortment of Nashville music industry executives have united with an unusual long-term goal: making their own group obsolete.

The collective’s name also spells out another of its key goals: Change the Conversation -- specifically, the ongoing discussion about why female artists have long faced a significantly more difficult struggle than male artists in country music.

Change the Conversation has quickly caught on since it began in late 2014 as a discussion among the group’s three well-credentialed founders: CMT senior vp music strategy Leslie Fram, who founded the network’s successful Next Women of Country franchise; artist manager and Rounder Records vp A&R Tracy Gershon; and Middle Tennessee State University recording industry department chair and The Tennessean columnist Beverly Keel.

The group is open to all, and its meetings have been rapidly growing in size. The first get-together, in January, was at Keel’s home; the second was held at Black River Entertainment on Music Row; and the third, at Creative Artist Agency’s Nashville penthouse, was attended by more than 50 people. The fourth, set for June 30, will move to a Gulch-area restaurant. Attendees at the most recent meeting included artists, managers, agents, record-label executives, songwriters and more. Although just two men attended that gathering, Music Row’s male executives are being actively encouraged to participate. As word has gotten out, businesses like City National Bank are coming forward to ask about sponsoring meetings.

The founders say that during meetings, complaining is discouraged. Instead, they are focusing on sharing information, debunking myths, commissioning research and working toward real-world solutions. Fram says attendees, particularly the artists, have found the meetings to be "a safe environment to ask questions and speak freely."

Says Gershon, "Everybody’s so busy they don’t need another wine-and-cheese event. We want to make it productive so people walk out feeling informed and empowered, and like they can actually make a change."

According to Keel, the group’s goals include helping more women get label and publishing deals, encouraging songwriters to write more songs for women -- something many say they are being actively discouraged from doing since it’s so much harder to get those songs cut -- getting more women artists played on country radio, getting more female acts booked on the main stages during CMA Music Fest and other high-profile events, and providing mentoring opportunities for women in country music.

Fram says the group is also working toward developing research and "talking points that people can use to dispel myths that are out there, [like] women don’t want to hear women and you can’t play two women back to back on the radio."

Offering an example of the work they are trying to accomplish, Gershon says that at one meeting, "We asked people what their biggest problems [were], and [an agent] said, ‘Sometimes when we book women in clubs the club owners don’t feel like they can sell enough beer.’ So that becomes something we have to track down to see if it’s true … and answer, intelligently, some of the stuff that comes up."

The group is also encouraging female artists and writers to root for one another in an environment where, says Gershon, in the past they have been pitted against each another and made to feel competitive because they’re repeatedly told there is just one spot at a time for women artists. "We’re really preaching the fact that a win for any of us is a win … so support each other."

But the founders are quick to recognize that not every woman artist has superstar potential. Says Gershon, "It’s not that we’re saying every woman needs to be played on the radio. We’re just saying they shouldn’t not be played because they’re women." Agrees Fram, "It shouldn’t be that there are only so many slots for women. It should be about the best music."

The group was already nearly 6 months old when radio consultant Keith Hill inadvertently threw a lit match into the room in May with his comments about how his clients that play 15 percent female artists or fewer perform better in the ratings, and referring to female artists as the "tomatoes" of the country programming "salad."

Those comments were published the day before the third meeting, and wound up galvanizing an already highly motivated group. Keel calls it "a beautifully wrapped gift," and Gershon says that at that third meeting, "The energy in the room was unbelievable. I almost felt like people were going to levitate."

Six months in, the group’s founders feel like Change the Conversation is already having an impact on Music Row. "It turned people from feeling helpless to hopeful," says Keel. "Before, we all worried about it, felt bad about it, but felt we were alone and didn’t have any power. When we’ve come together, we have the power of our voices to spotlight the problem, fight it and come up with solutions. We’re not just sitting around complaining and expecting somebody else to fix it. We’re taking responsibility ourselves to improve the situation."

"The more we talk about it, the more it’s in the universe, and I feel it changing a little bit," says Gershon.

Adds Fram, "Change the Conversation has started a conversation. It is a safe place for artists and writers to come and ask questions. It’s been very positive in that respect."

But Keel notes the group is taking a long-term view. "This isn’t about us," she says. "This is about the young generation of girls who are dreaming about working in the country music industry. We want to improve the situation for them so that they’re not still battling myths 10 or 15 years from now. We want to leave it better than we found it."

Adds Gershon, "Our long-term goal is to not have to have this conversation anymore." 

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.