Country Radio Seminar's 2019 New Faces Showcase Comes Under Criticism for Shortage of Female Artists

Lindsay Ell
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for CMT

Lindsay Ell performs onstage at the 2018 CMT Music Awards at Bridgestone Arena on June 6, 2018 in Nashville, Tenn.

Among next year's 13 nominees on the ballot, Lindsay Ell is the only woman.

Country Radio Seminar has come under fire over female representation, as it prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary Feb. 13-15. But CRS officials are saying the industry conference is just the messenger.

The controversy surrounds the New Faces of Country Music showcase, one of the most attended events during the annual three-day event. Each year, the radio community votes to determine which five developing acts will perform in front of a room of radio professionals. Among next year's 13 nominees on the ballot, only one is a woman.

Lindsay Ell stands out in an otherwise boys club for the CRS New Faces Class of 2019. She has been nominated alongside Jimmie Allen, Jordan Davis, Russell Dickerson, Morgan Evans, Riley Green, Walker Hayes, LANCO, Chris Lane, Dylan Scott, Mitchell Tenpenny, Morgan Wallen and Aaron Watson

Since the announcement was made on Nov. 8, social media boards have been lighting up about the lack of female representation for New Faces, but the bigger criticism continues to be over how country radio’s lack of support led to the paltry showing. 

Nationally syndicated The Bobby Bones Show radio host Bobby Bones, who debuted an hour-long weekend program devoted exclusively to female country artists in September, shared his disappointment in a series of Instagram stories on Nov. 10, following the 2019 CRS New Faces announcement. ”There are 13 acts up for 'new faces' and one woman. Just 1. This is just in the voting. Not even the final list," he wrote. "Our industry is at times amazing. At other times (like this instance) full caveman mode.”

Even before “Tomato-gate” -- the flashpoint moment in 2015 when a country radio consultant suggested that female artists were the tomatoes in a salad, implying they should be played sparingly -- and male artists were the lettuce, groups have sought ways to support female artists. Since 2014, CMT has sponsored a Next Women of Country tour and for this fall’s Artists of the Year event, it selected all female artists to push back against the perception there are not strong, female artists worthy of airplay. 

While CRS executive director Bill Mayne, who is retiring in May 2019, says he'd love more diversity on next year's New Faces lineup, he stands by the criteria he put in place a decade ago that lays out specific requirements on who qualifies for a CRS New Faces nomination. The rules to qualify aren't made to discriminate, he asserts, however, the lack of females being played on country radio makes it increasingly hard for them to meet the criteria. 

The New Faces of Country Music qualification criteria states that "acts must have had at least one but no more than five top 25 singles on the Mediabase Country Chart as published in Country Aircheck or at least one but no more than five top 25 singles on the BDS-based Country Chart during the qualification period." Additionally, the artists selected must have not appeared on the New Faces show before. As a result, this leaves out acts like Maren Morris, Lauren Alaina, Carly Pearce and Kelsea Ballerini, all of whom have experienced radio airplay and chart success within the past year and have taken part in recent New Faces showcases. 

"I have no choice or control at what acts get signed to labels, who makes records and puts them out," Mayne tells Billboard. "Not as many women are getting signed and not as many female singles are being released. There's a lot of different factors that you have to look at to answer the question why [more women aren't included]. I really love diversification on the ballot. Believe me, we've had years where we've had multiple females. I wish that were the case this year, but it's just not.” The lack of diversity also shows up on the CRS’s board of directors: Of the 34 directors, seven are female. 

Women ruled the country charts in the '90s and their presence was felt at the CRS New Faces showcase. In 1990, six women were featured on the bill when the event boasted 10 acts. Daniele Alexander, Suzy Bogguss, Jann Browne, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Lorrie Morgan and Wild Rose were selected as performers that year. In 1998, six women were on the roster including Sherrie Austin, Anita Cochran, Dixie Chicks, The Lynns, Lila McCann and Kris Tyler.

Throughout the qualification period of Nov. 1, 2017 - Oct. 31, 2018, Ell is the only female who hasn't been nominated in previous years that had a top 25 hit on the Billboard Country Airplay chart with "Criminal." 

The issue is not just a country one. A University of Southern California Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study released in January found that 2017 marked a six-year low for women in music across all mainstream genres. Only 22 percent of all artists across the 600 most popular songs from 2012-2017 were performed by females. Additionally, in 2017 women made up less than 17 percent of artists on the Billboard Hot 100 year-end chart.

Beverly Keel, chair of the department of recording industry at Middle Tennessee State University and co-founder of Change the Conversation, an organization which fights gender inequality in the music industry since 2014, says radio must lead the change.

"The problem has to be fixed at country radio because that's the foundation by which everything else grows," she tells Billboard. "If you don't get radio airplay, then you don't get the hits, so you don't get award nominations. You don't get added on bigger tours. You don't get the T.V. performances. Your career is not able to grow. In the country music format, country radio is still pretty much king.”

This lack of representation was felt at Nov. 11’s 2018 SESAC Awards, where Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott was the only female songwriter recognized in the country portion of the awards show for penning the trio's 2017 single "Heart Break.”

"The female perspective in music, but especially in country music, is so needed. That emotion, that heart that we as women bring to anything we do. That perspective on the radio and that perspective being recognized is really important," she told Billboard on the red carpet ahead of the awards show. "Coming off of CMT Artists of the Year this year, we're all 'I am woman hear me roar' because I think we were able to show so many people that you can be in healthy competition with incredible women but not compare yourselves to each other, and be who you are in your own strength in what you bring and who you're created to be as an individual and still make a huge impact."

Runaway June attended the awards show to perform their female empowering single, "Buy My Own Drinks." Ahead of their performance, they praised fellow Broken Bow Records label mate Ell for her recognition. "Any women right now being played on the radio is a plus for everybody," singer Jennifer Wayne reasoned. "I feel like all the girls are lifting the people behind them up so she's paving the way for us."

"Any girl that is being recognized just opens the door wider for more,” bandmate Naomi Cooke added. "We're rooting her on.”

For its part, Ell’s label, BBR Music Group wants Ell to be seen as a great artist, not just a great female artist. "She strives to be the best artist she can be. I don't think it's gender specific. She can get out there and trade licks with the bigger guitar players in the business. Put her up against anybody on stage, she woos a crowd, brings it in and people just appreciate her,” says Carson James, SVP of promotion, BBR Music Group. “How can you not see that she's deserving as an artist specifically, not just a female artist? She wants to headline theaters, arenas and stadiums. I think if we keep calling attention to the gender specificity of it we may be making a mistake and penalizing some of these really great artists we have."

While the artists and labels may take a softer tone in order to not criticize radio which they depend so heavily upon, Bones is taking no prisoners. On Instagram, he even threatened to counter-program against New Faces. "I'm more disappointed in a great format than I am pissed. But I am pissed too," he continues. "Don't make me rent a venue and put on a concert with all females at the exact same time [because] that's the kind of thing I'll do. And if I get the 'there's one woman that qualified' one more time .... The reason only [one] qualified is because the system is broken. Be a part of the fix. Not part of the problem. Your rules aren't the Constitution."

While Mayne says he's willing to change the rules for more women to qualify as a performer at the New Faces showcase -- though did not give specifics -- Keel says this ultimately won't fix the problem.

"Changing the criteria defeats the purpose because it makes it look like you're lowering the bar for women," Keel asserts. "What we have to do is help women clear that bar so they're qualified. Again, if they get radio airplay, then they would be eligible."

Voting for CRS’s New Faces show begins for full-time radio employees on Nov. 15.