On Dec. 5, 2018, Billboard reported zero female artists in the top 20 of the Country Airplay chart for the first time since the chart’s launch in 1990 — a phenomenon that continued for three consecutive weeks and marked the culmination of a significant decline in female voices on country radio over the course of nearly three decades. Now, a new study by SongData (in consultation with WOMAN Nashville) has found a “significant gender imbalance” on the chart that suggests the problem is ongoing.
The results of the study, which was published Friday (Aug. 2), paint a stark portrait of that imbalance. Focusing on the weekly Country Airplay (as opposed to Hot Country Songs) chart between January 2018 and July 2019, the study found that during that time period, only 14 songs by female artists and male-female ensembles peaked in the top 20 (an average of roughly two a week), while only seven of those reached the top 10 and only four reached the No. 1 spot.
This compares with a total of 111 songs by male artists reaching the top 20 during that same period and a whopping 45 songs peaking at No. 1 — meaning that men held the No. 1 position for 77 of the 81 weeks of the study period (95%), versus just four weeks (5%) for women. The solo female artists that peaked at No. 1 during the study period were Maren Morris (“I Could Use a Love Song” and “Girl”) and Kelsea Ballerini (“Legends”), while a third — Bebe Rexha — reached it co-billed with Florida Georgia Line on “Meant to Be.”
Of songs entering the overall chart during that same time period, those by female artists and male-female ensembles numbered just 53 (21%), versus 195 for male artists (79%).
The SongData study additionally found that the majority of songs by female artists on the chart (69.5%) peaked outside the top 20, with the largest percentage of those peaking in the bottom 10 (#51-60). Even in the bottom 40 positions on the chart, songs by male artists outnumbered songs by women nearly two to one.
The study did report some positive signs. Following an eight-month period in 2018 that saw a weekly average of just six songs by women entering the Country Airplay chart, 2019 saw a significant improvement on that average, helping bring the overall 19-month average up to 10 songs weekly. Additionally, Morris’ “Girl” reached No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart on July 29, 2019, making her the first solo female country artist to do so in 17 months (following Ballerini).
“There is much work to be done to create equal opportunities for female artists,” Watson continues, “but these improvements suggest a greater commitment to supporting women in country music at a moment when female artists are being celebrated so widely outside of radio.”
As to the broader implications of her findings, Watson correlates the decline in songs by female artists on the Country Airplay chart with an overall drop in ratings for country radio, which have dipped 12.9% between 2012 and 2019, according to a recent report by Country Aircheck. Though many of the interviewees in that report spoke to the “increasing homogeneity and overwhelming pop sound of country format radio” as a reason for the dip, Watson notes that none correlated that homogeneity with the decline in female voices.
“The exclusion of women from this space contributes to the broader crisis of homogeneity within country music culture,” Watson writes. “This crisis can be reversed, though, by including more women — and male-female ensembles — in radio programming. This action would benefit not just the artists (who deserve equal access), but also the country listening audiences and the long-term health and vitality the entire country music ecosystem.”
Country Airplay’s weekly rankings are determined using Billboard’s audience-impression method, which cross-references Nielsen airplay data with audience information compiled by the Arbitron ratings system across 149 reporting stations. Under this method, a song being played in a larger market is weighed more heavily than one played in a smaller market.