Top Country Music Executives Weigh In on Billboard Country Airplay Chart's Historic Lack of Women Artists

Maren Morris
John Shearer

Maren Morris

For the first time since the 1990 launch of Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, the chart dated Dec. 8 included no female acts in the top 20. Then history repeated itself for the chart dated Dec. 15.

While the state of female artists on country radio has been dismal for the last few years, Billboard’s 2018 Country Airplay Artists year-end chart further reflected the bleak state of affairs. Coming in at No. 14, Maren Morris is the only woman in the top 20, marking the worst showing for women on the tally in the past five years. Carrie Underwood, the highest-ranked woman on the year-end Top Country Artists chart at No. 13, only reached No. 33. In 2017, four women made the year-end Country Airplay Artists tally. 

Billboard asked top Nashville executives their reaction to the female chart drought and what could be done. While some have been quick to blame country radio, other executives stressed solutions have to come from all sides. Label and publishing executives and managers said they are seeing no slow down in signing female artists, despite the lack of airplay. 

Below are their comments, some edited for brevity, in their own words.

R.J. Curtis, incoming executive director, Country Radio Broadcasters: I’m hoping the most recent Billboard charts with no female artists inside the top 20 signal the low ebb of what appears to be one of the nethermost music cycles any of us can recall. The convenient, default explanation has somehow become ‘Country radio has a gender bias when it comes to the ladies.’ That premise would be dependent on all of country radio together conspiring to lock out female artists. But historically, when you see consensus at that level for any format trend, it’s a classic sign of a low music cycle occurring.

Suggesting the ladies -- as a group -- aren’t making great enough music right now is an extremely slippery slope, because music taste is so subjective; most programmers are understandably concerned about the ramifications of verbalizing that. But many PDs I talked to in my previous role [as Nashville editor of radio trade All Access] did feel that way…Though I have no knowledge of it, I have heard anecdotally that labels signed far fewer females in recent years, which, if true, would partially explain our current airplay lapse. We often hear radio is to blame for that too. Programmers have told me the “chicken or the egg" premise is frustrating, because they’re often blamed for being the chicken and the egg.

As for solutions -- this is just one former PD’s observation from the peanut gallery, and not an official CRB position -- but that sway could perhaps be manifested by radio groups redirecting their music and label partnerships in a dedicated effort to correct any disparities. For example, instead of singular airplay initiatives, radio might consider committing to several projects by several ladies at a time, spanning a period of 16-18 months, not six to eight weeks. This strategy could result in credible and genuine artist development, rather than manufactured, occasional hit singles, while triggering a format correction for female artists.

Kent Earls, executive vp/gm, Universal Music Publishing Group Nashville: It's surprising and it simply can't continue. There's too much great talent and it's so diverse -- not only women, but people of color, too.  Any time we're not including all of the greatest talents in music, it prevents music from achieving its full potential. I'm confident that we'll get there, but it will require real commitment for sustainable progress. I am proud to say that UMPG has recently signed six incredible women artist/songwriters and fostered their career development.  Three of them have major label deals.  This is just a small example.

John Esposito, chairman/CEO, Warner Music Nashville: All the labels in Nashville are trying to figure out why there is a lack of females on the radio because there isn’t a lack of genuine commitment to their talent. Obviously country radio is important, but there are many additional avenues to garner consumption of music that we take into consideration when signing any new artists, including streaming, video content, television and more. This approach has allowed us a diverse roster and pushed us to be ever more intentional in our strategy.

Country radio is always considered as part of a marketing plan, and we will certainly continue to take the artists we sign to radio in a deliberate, thoughtful way. However, we don’t sign artists who live and die by the radio. Our team finds unique talent and takes that to the consumer, because ultimately the consumer is the judge, and our many woman on our roster make us proud and emboldened.

Leslie Fram, senior vp, music strategy, CMT: It’s time for all of us to come together to solve this problem. We must stop pointing fingers to say it’s radio's problem and radio saying it's the labels problem. Can we all just get in a room together and find a solution before we hurt the careers and livelihoods of so many talents artists?  We are going to start seeing an issue for male artists as well because that lane has grown exponentially and it will be harder with so many new male artists to break through. Radio is on the defensive and their response is that they are not getting enough females to support. Labels are too afraid to challenge radio when one of their female artists stalls on the charts.

I have talked with many female artists who have no idea what to do next. They’ve been told that radio loves their songs, they do all the free shows, everything they are asked to do and still no support. Again -- instead of pointing the finger, putting a band-aid on this, it's time to have a real conversation. Country Radio Seminar would be the perfect place.

Randy Goodman, chairman/CEO, Sony Music Nashville: It’s an ongoing thing and the fact that we’ve got Pistol Annies -- which [includes] Miranda Lambert -- Rachel Wammack and Tenille Townes, we have the Sisterhood in development, I’ve got a big stake in that game. It’s frustrating, but I’ve got some new males I can’t get traction on. I don’t look at it as gender specific, but with as many females as I have on the roster, it’s something that’s concerning to me and I don’t know what the answer is. 

Just as concerning, there have been more females on the top of the radio charts than on the streaming charts. Here’s Maren Morris, her [third] top 10 off her album,  and even with that critical mass airplay, she never translated into a significant streaming artist the way that Dan + Shay or Kane Brown or Luke Combs or even Mitchell Tenpenny are right now. What’s wrong with that picture? If you don’t have a hit at radio -- terrestrial or even at satellite radio -- you’re going to be hard pressed to drive consumption. If you don’t have a female in the top 20, you’re pretty much going to guarantee that you’re not going to have consumption… Radio is changing, more and more they want to see analytics, they want to see activity, they want to see a reason to invest because there are so many new artists coming at them.

Mary Hilliard Harrington, manager, Dierks Bentley, Lanco, Elle King: It’s complete bullshit. I wish I knew why. However, I’m optimistic that we are at the end of this trend. There have recently been more females signed to Nashville’s major labels, and there have been more female executives promoted and given more responsibility. I believe we are going to work together to make change. There are a lot of good men circling in and lifting female artists up too.  Bobby Bones just started a female-focused radio show. Dierks just put a relatively unknown new singer/songwriter Tenille Townes on his tour -- not because she’s a girl but because he loves her music and wants to help champion a talented new artist. We need more of those.  And we need them now.

Marion Kraft, artist manager, Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies: We have not seen anything close to equal exposure for women artists on terrestrial radio or some of the streaming services. I am hopeful that we are about to reach a turning point where it’s no longer acceptable to not give female artists the same opportunities as their male counterparts. The stakeholders -managers, record labels, publishers, etc. -- in Nashville have always been believers in talented women and have been signing women in the past and continue to do so even in this climate. It's time for our partners to catch up. 

Cindy Mabe, president, Universal Music Group Nashville: It’s disappointing not just for female artists, but for an audience who wants something more and who value a wider perspective and diversity in sound, lyrical content and overall depth. The country music format has always been a true reflection of the world around us.  The current Top 20 airplay charts have completely eliminated 50 percent of the populations’ perspective and it’s causing them to lose audience. In speaking for Universal Music Group Nashville, we aren’t making choices to sign artists based on what gender, age, race or even what configuration they are in -- from band to duo to solo. We sign artists who are great, who move us and who we believe have the ability to not only connect with an audience, but the ability to change the world with their unique perspective, voice and storytelling and then we figure out how to best get them to the marketplace.

The new female artists that we’ve signed are leading that charge with depth, honesty, and unique perspective. I have faith that these women will redefine what country music is. Country music still has and will always have artists with diverse sound and vision. They are just currently less or not exposed at country radio. Chris Stapleton and Kacey Musgraves are both great examples of [artists] finding and connecting to an audience that lives outside of the boundaries of country radio… They are changing the diversity of the format through their perspectives, but also in the way country artists are being discovered and consumed because now more than ever there is no one way to discover and consume music.  We live in an on-demand world and when you can’t find what you are looking for in one place, you’ll find it somewhere else.

Troy Tomlinson, president/CEO, Sony/ATV Nashville: Country music has always been at its best and its healthiest when it’s populated with a musically diverse variety of strong, superstar artists, both men and women… Songwriters write what’s on their minds and in their hearts. Publishers make the best pitch they can with the appropriate artists who are cutting. It is a loss for our format when we have limited opportunities for great songs that are clearly written from a woman’s unique perspective.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2018 issue of Billboard.