It has been nearly 10 months since radio consultant Keith Hill created national headlines and brought new attention to a perennial issue — the disparity in the numbers of successful male and female artists in country music — when he referred to women as the “tomatoes” in a lettuce-heavy (read: male–dominated) salad. But judging by the volume of young female songwriters and aspiring writer-artists filling rows of seats at the March 16 Song Suffragettes Summit in Nashville, Hill didn’t scare anyone off.
The event was packed with women eagerly soaking up -knowledge shared by moderator Todd Cassetty, founder of the 2-year-old weekly live show Song Suffragettes, and his four panelists: CMT senior VP, music and talent Leslie Fram; Warner Music Nashville vp A&R Cris Lacy; agent Kylen Sharpe of Creative Artists Agency; and Sweet Talk Publicity president Jensen Sussman. Billboard Country Update was the only media outlet invited to cover the panel, held at Noteable Blends Coffee House.
All the panelists were encouraged by the strides that female artists made in the last year — they specifically cited the success of Kelsea Ballerini, Cam and Maren Morris — but, as Fram and others noted, there’s still a long way to go.
Even prior to Hill’s controversial comments, groups like Change the Conversation and Song Suffragettes had mobilized in Nashville to enact progress. Song Suffragettes features a rotating cast of female country talent performing weekly at Nashville’s Listening Room Cafe. In the two years since it was created, 13 of the women who have played the show have gotten publishing deals, with several already landing cuts for major artists, and two of the Suffragettes — Brittany Kennell and Mary Sarah — scored spots on Blake Shelton’s team on the current season of NBC’s The Voice.
But Fram said real change is “a slow process” and expressed hope that the success of Ballerini, Cam and others “will [whet] the appetite at country radio for more women to get played.” Sussman agreed that those successes “give us hope that working in this business, anything is possible if you put your heart and mind and soul to it. That’s really encouraging.”
Despite some progress, panelists noted that it is critical to keep the discussion about female artists going. Said Sharpe, “It’s important that we keep talking about it, because that’s why it’s getting better.”
Added Lacy, “It’s a little better on radio, for sure, but I don’t see anybody -saying, ‘We’re good.’ There’s not a requisite amount [of female successes] where everybody will just shut up. It’s [still] disproportionate what our genre looks like when you compare it to other formats. I’m encouraged. It’s growing, but it does have quite a way to go.”
Panelists said one reason the tide may be turning a bit for female artists is that more of them have quit chasing trends in favor of being authentic. “I see a wave of smart, interesting, different female artists coming through our offices,” said Lacy. “For a while, a year or two ago, I felt like everybody was copying someone else. Now I’m seeing a lot of distinctive voices, distinctive perspectives and musicality. That’s encouraging to me.”
Fram agreed that the next wave of female acts to break through will be “original” and have “a sense of themselves … A lot of what I’ve seen is people trying to chase what’s on the radio, and I discourage that.” Sussman said, “You need to be your own trailblazer and create your own lane,” calling artists who copy what is already working on the radio “a turn-off.”
For Lacy, confidence and vulnerability are two key qualities she is now seeking in the female artists she scouts. “That’s paramount to what I’m looking for,” she said. “Are you so confident that you’re allowing this vulnerability into your music so that everybody else feels like you’re speaking for them?”
Sharpe also prefers to work with artists who “have a point of view,” as well as those who have independently achieved success before signing with a label. “I like to see you’ve slugged it out on your own. You’ve put in your 10,000 hours.”
But Sharpe also observed that the women in the room, most of whom had played at Song Suffragettes shows, already had a leg up. Noting that success in Nashville is often built on an artist establishing their own tribe of like-minded collaborators, she said, “This town is all about community, and you have already created your own community here.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.