AT&T Capitalizes on Country Radio's Dismissal of Female Solo Acts

Ashley Monroe performs on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon on July 27, 2015.

Douglas Gorenstein/NBC

When Ashley Monroe sings "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" in the opening scene of an AT&T U-verse profile, the setting couldn't be more perfect. Shot in the Rotunda at the Country Music Hall of Fame, the performance puts Monroe in the same room that houses the plaques of her relative, Carl Smith, and her idol, Dolly Parton.

And when the camera goes wide, the bottom piece of the facility's broadcast tower -- built to represent the signal of WSM-AM Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry -- pierces the arched ceiling like a dagger.

It's appropriate. Scads of women, inspired by such talents as Parton, Shania Twain, Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift, have moved to Nashville to chase a country dream. The doors have been mostly closed to them at terrestrial radio during the bro-country era, slicing most of the female viewpoint out of the mix even as stations lean heavily on women in their audience demographics.

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But two major corporations see radio's cold shoulder as an opportunity. CMT's Next Women of Country program, established three years ago, took its first steps into the live arena this year when the cable network backed a 10-city Next Women of Country tour headlined by Jana Kramer and Kelsea Ballerini. And Monroe's performance is part of a 30-minute Women in Country profile that marks the debut of a series in AT&T's Country Deep offering on the digital U-verse platform. Produced by Shaun Silva's Tacklebox Films, the piece is a gorgeous and insightful look at Monroe that captures both her strength and vulnerability in a timely fashion, premiering in conjunction with Warner Music Nashville's July 24 release of her album The Blade.

"We're trying to build an audience," says Monroe's manager, Crush Management Nashville owner John Grady. "I'm trying to have my feet and the rest of my body do what I say, which is we need to work harder at building an audience rather than hanging around waiting for a radio station to play your record."

AT&T's Women in Country series is a deliberate move to capitalize on radio's dismissal of female solo acts as the company bolsters its Country Deep offering, which allows subscribers to make personal playlists of a range of country-themed visual productions, including videos, live performances and interviews.

"We feel that's an underserved segment," says Texas-based AT&T U-verse vp content development Tom Sauer. "You're not seeing a lot of women get carriage and play on radio, [but] there's some fantastic artists out there."

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AT&T has been a title sponsor at the Fan Fair X exhibit hall during CMA Music Festival for the past three years, showing distinct commitment to the country genre. At least three or four other females have Women in Country profiles on the way, according to Sauer, though AT&T isn't yet ready to name them. The intent is to build a relationship with new females in the format and to continue to work with them as their careers grow, enhancing the company's perception on Music Row.

"We're very strong with diversity across our organization," says Sauer, "so Women in Country fits just perfect."

Females' inability to fit at radio has been a much-documented source of consternation to country music executives. Indeed, the highest-charting solo female title on Country Airplay this week is Cam's "Burning House" at No. 26. Many programmers have seen metrics that lead them to believe women are a tune-out factor, making them reticent to give untested females much opportunity. Meanwhile, CMT looks at the polling of its viewers and sees numbers that indicate women are a major attraction to its core audience.

"Our viewers always said they related to female artists or aspired to be them," observes CMT vp music strategy Leslie Fram, a former radio programmer. "So we've always had success with female artists. If you ask a CMT viewer who their favorite artists are, the females are always on the top, whether it's Reba [McEntire] or Shania, or they'll say Carrie [Underwood], and then new artists will start emerging."

For its part, CMT anticipates using at least one of the performances from Monroe's July 25 showcase at Nashville's Basement East as video material on its multiple platforms. 

The Next Women of Country and Women in Country initiatives become branding opportunities for the channels, and they provide Music Row managers with yet another method of building stories and data they can take to radio. 

"It's part of the evolution of technology and getting music in front of people," says Grady. "Not that long ago, we made videos, we made records, we tried to put 'em on the radio, we begged 'em to play our videos, and [sometimes] you had a song that ended up in an enormous piece of advertising somehow. I'm interested in putting music in front of anything that attracts a large audience because there's nothing really bad that can happen."

There are signs that the door is opening at radio -- particularly Ballerini's recent No. 1 single with "Love Me Like Mean It" and Cam's breakthrough with "Burning House" -- but if a shift is coming, it's not likely to happen overnight. Meanwhile, focusing on females is, for now, a window of opportunity for at least two of radio's competitors. If the bandwagon grows much beyond AT&T and CMT, women-centric marketing efforts could overshadow the music they're intended to promote. At the moment, that's a distant problem.

"It's always important to remember that we are Americans, and along the lines of marketing concepts, we overdo everything if we get a chance," says Grady. "After all, somebody made Legally Blonde 2 and Hot Tub Time Machine 2. Anything we do is bound to get overdone and backfire at some point. On the front end, it's usually pretty positive."

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