Are Women Finally Getting a Fair Shake on Country Radio? A Billboard Analysis

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Kelsea Ballerini performs on the Jack Daniels Stage  during the Jack Daniels Bash on Broadway: New Year's Eve in Music City on Dec. 31, 2015 in Nashville, Tennessee. 

In short, not yet. But it's complicated.

If you watch country awards shows on television, you might think female artists are roughly equal with male artists. If you're a country radio listener, however, you probably have a very different impression.

In last year's three major award shows -- Academy of Country Music, the Country Music Association and Country Music Television -- women received 34.8 percent of the nominations and 44.4 percent of the wins, excluding categories such as best male and female artist. Industry professionals choose the nominees. Fans choose the winners. Equality all around, right? 

Wrong.

For a multitude of reasons, males dominate country radio. In Nashville, it's a tired topic and one that people are wary to talk about. But following the release of the year-end charts, it's worth against asking -- again: Why aren't women getting hits at country radio?

An analysis of the year-end Billboard Country Airplay chart shows females represented 16 percent of the top 100 songs of 2015. Solo female artists and all-female bands represented 12 songs in total. Another 4 songs were by bands with at least one female. Separately, another 3 songs were by male artists featuring a female artist.

Popular music in general is entirely different than country radio. Solo women had 32 of the 100 on the year-end Hot 100, an all-encompassing chart that covers pop radio as well as streams and download sales. In all, women headlined or were featured in 39 songs on the 2015 Hot 100 chart -- far from parity, perhaps, but more than double the number of women on the Country Airplay chart.

"I don't think there's an issue," says a manager of both male and female country artists. "I think it's a non-issue. If you come forward with a great song and happen to be female, singer -- that song will get played, streamed, sold and listened to." Other industry professionals agree that a female with a unique voice and good material will find a way to listeners.

Few people want to speak on the record about this topic. Some wouldn't even allow Billboard to quote them anonymously. It's too controversial and too easy to be misunderstood. But, the dozen or so who were willing to speak -- people involved with all aspects of the music business -- describe a complex web of interrelated business segments that act like one big feedback loop. Songwriters write songs they believe will get played at country radio. Labels sign artists they believe will get played at country radio. The airplay chart tells songwriters and labels what type of artist and song can succeed at country radio. 

Some people, both inside and outside the radio business, believe labels release more music by males because women prefer to hear male artists on the radio.

Might it just be in peoples' heads? "I think we're caught in this conundrum that's completely self-created," says one manager.

One thing is certain: women can't have hits at country radio if they're not heard at country radio. "You have to be exposed to them to like them, but women aren't getting the radio exposure in the first place," says Beverly Keel, Chair of Middle Tennessee State University's department of recording industry. After last year's "tomato" episode — a radio executive described female artists as "tomatos" in a country salad — Keel co-founded a group called Change the Conversations along with Trace Gershon, Rounder Records vp A&R, and Leslie Fram, CMT's senior vp music strategy.

Changing the tone of country music won't be easy. For all the efforts of Changing the Conversation, the ability of women to be nominated and win major country awards, and the availability of brand opportunities -- brands love females, says one expert -- women have a difficult time gaining equality at the largest of the gatekeepers. "It's more balanced everywhere but radio... but it doesn't trickle up to radio," says Fram.

Yet country radio stations will only play what singles get pitched. And they aren't getting pitched as many women as people might think.

Billboard examined 236 country singles promoted to country radio -- "going for adds" in industry parlance -- from June 30, 2014 to June 29, 2015 using information provided by Nielsen Music. A 12-month period from mid-year to mid-year was chosen because songs take anywhere from a few months to a year to rise up the chart. Because of this timing difference, a single released in the second half of 2014 was likely to peak in 2015. Singles were categorized by gender category and size of label. The large label category, the three majors as well as Big Machine Label Group and Broken Bow Records, represented 98 of the 100 songs on the 2015 Country Airplay chart.

A straightforward examination of stations' adds shows that the three female categories (solo female, all-female group, male-female group) accounted for 35.6 percent of the 236 singles that went for adds from mid-2014 to mid-2015. That's more than double what females achieved in the 2015 Country Airplay chart.

A second, and more revealing, method separates large labels from small labels. Recall the large labels had 98 percent of the top 100 songs at country radio in 2015. They have the power to shape the country music landscape because the songs they push at radio are, for the most part, the songs that become hits at country radio.

Here's where differences emerge. Females were involved in 26.8 percent of the 123 large label songs sent to country radio over the time period. Solo female artists had a 17.9 percent share, all-female groups accounted for 1.6 percent and male-female groups represented 7.3 percent. A smaller share of women had hits than got pitched, but the difference wasn't very large. 

Large labels sent mostly men to country radio — as one might expect in the era of "bro country." Nearly 3 out of every 4 songs in the sample was either from a solo male artist (60.2 percent), a solo male featuring a female artist (1.6 percent) or an all-male group or ensemble (11.4 percent).

Most of the females pushed to country radio are found on small labels. Solo females like Lucy Hale and Katie Armiger accounted for 31.9 percent of small labels' songs, while all-female bands were 5.3 percent and male-female groups were 8 percent of small label singles. In all, females were involved in 45.1 percent of small labels' singles.

And things have actually got worse over the years, according to research by political economist Devarati Ghosh. She found that from 2008 to 2015, females represented 38 percent of big label solo artists taken to country radio and 26 percent of the new solo artists to receive their first top 20 hit -- but none of the new acts with a second top 20 hit. From 1992 to 1999 and 2000 through 2007, females represented a higher percentage of debut artists and first and second top 20 hits.

If the problem isn't country radio, then surely women fare better on digital platforms, right? Not quite. While it's impossible to remove the effect of country radio, females don't do much better when consumers could choose from the vast catalogs of digital services.

The Hot Country Songs chart, which incorporates downloads and streams along with airplay, has almost the exact same male-female breakdown as the Country Airplay Songs list. Some of the artists are different, however. A handful of tracks on the Songs chart are absent from the Airplay chart: Kelsea Ballerini's "Dibs" (#74), RaeLynn's "God Made Girls" (#75), and "Biscuits" by Kacey Musgraves, a critically acclaimed, Grammy Award-nominated singer-songwriter who receives little country airplay.

Overall, however, females rank higher on the Songs chart than the Airplay chart. Little Big Town's "Girl Crush" is #2 on Songs but #38 on Airplay (well ahead of #27, where Maddie & Tae are the top-ranked females on the Airplay chart). Cam's "Burning House" is #19 on Songs and #58 on Airplay (up 37 slots), Carrie Underwood's "Little Toy Guns" (up 25 slots).

Is females' low representation on the charts a symptom or the problem? Taken together, these numbers show country females don't get many of the pitches to radio and even fewer of the hits at radio. It's a classic "chicken and egg" dilemma. Radio will play only what it gets pitched. Do females face an inherent disadvantage at radio? Or do labels sign mostly males because it believes females won't succeed at radio?

Opinions vary about the root causes of the gender imbalance. The dozen or so people that spoke with Billboard mostly believe females are underrepresented in country because the country industry believes females have a disadvantage in country. Songwriters don't write songs for female artists and with a female perspective. Female artists become discouraged from seeking a career in country music. Labels have a more difficult time finding unique, compelling females with good material. "It's definitely a self-fulfilling prophecy," says Lance Houston, program director at WBWL in Boston  

People throughout country music are optimistic for the future, however. Country music goes through cycles and females are on the upswing. Radio consultant Joel Raab agrees.

 "I don't think we've seen the fruits of it on the charts yet, but it does seem there are some strong women in the pipeline," says Raab, pointing to Maren Morris, Lindsay Ell and Kelsea Ballerini -- many others have mentioned the same names. "I think they're out there. It's just a matter of breaking through."