by Jada E. Watson
On 5 December 2018, Billboard’s Country Airplay chart reported for the first time since the radio-based survey launched in January 1990 an exclusively male lineup in the Top 20 positions. The highest charting song by a female artist was Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins” at #22. This absence of female artists in the Top 20 continued for two additional weeks until Underwood’s song broke the dry spell when it hit #19 the week of 22 December 2018. Billboard’s Jim Asker investigated the presence of female artists in the Top 20, revealing a downward trend in the number of songs breaking into the top of the chart since December 2000 – with a quick decline from four in December 2015, down to three in December 2017 and no songs in December 2018. The declining presence of women in the top positions of the chart is certainly not new, but their complete absence from the Top 20 was a significant warning signal of a cultural crisis within country radio.
Where are we now? Has the place of women in the Country Airplay charts improved since December? Or are women still facing barriers in programming that result in their absence from the Airplay chart? Today, SongData is releasing a Report on gender representation on the Billboard Country Airplay Chart focusing on the 19 months between January 2018 and July 2019. This report evaluates chart activity to discover the trends leading up to December 2018 and to evaluate the position of female artists following this critical moment. The dataset for this study comprises the weekly charts for each of these months, coded by the ensemble type and the gender of the lead artist (male, female and male-female ensemble). The 3-page Report outlines the study findings, and includes an appendix summarizing the data and chart rules.
This Report was prepared in consultation with WOMAN Nashville.
Country Airplay has been Billboard’s flagship radio chart for the genre since it first launched in January 1990. Although the chart has undergone many changes in name, size, and methodology since its founding (outlined in Watson 2019), it has always used data monitored by Nielsen Broadcast Data Systems to determine its weekly rankings. Today, the chart tabulates the top 60 current singles by radio airplay across 149 reporting stations, using Billboard’s audience-impression method. This method cross-references Nielsen data with audience information compiled by the Arbitron ratings system to determine approximate size of audience. In this way, a song played at peak hours and in a larger market will have greater influence than one played in a smaller market.
Previous studies of gender representation on the chart (Watson 2019) revealed growing inequity in the chart’s culture between 1996 and 2012, but there have not been any other studies of the Airplay chart following this period. Much of the attention has instead focused on the composition of the new hybrid-Hot Country Songs chart, which mingles digital downloads and streaming with airplay from all format stations. (Ghosh 2013, 2015; Watson 2018; Annenberg 2019). Although focused to just the 19 months between January 2018 and July 2019, this Report seeks to fill the gap and evaluate gender representation in Billboard’s Country Airplay chart’s culture. This is especially relevant in light of the abovementioned absence of female artists in the Top 20 of the chart for three weeks in December 2018.
This study’s findings are not surprising: they illustrate significant gender imbalance on Billboard’s Country Airplay charts. As with previous studies of country radio (Watson 2019a, 2019b), male artists have more songs on the Airplay chart than female artists, they have more chart-topping songs than female artists, and there are more individual men than women overall. The findings can be summarized as follows:
- An average of 10 songs by women chart each week of this period;
- Women are gradually filtered out of the top spots of the chart, with just 13 songs peaking in the Top 20 – 7 of which enter the Top 10 and 4 reach the coveted #1 spot;
- Men hold the #1 position for 77 of the 81 weeks (95%) in this period, with the remaining 4 weeks (5%) held by female artists.
The most significant finding here is that the majority of songs by female artists peak in the bottom positions of the chart. I found that 69.5% of the songs by women peak outside of the Top 20 (#21-60), with the largest percentage of their songs (28%) peaking in the bottom 10 positions (#51-60). In this charting culture, only a select few female artists are programmed at a high enough rate to break into the top of the charts. The number of artists with #1 songs offers a striking comparison: 27 male artists released 45 songs that peak at #1, while just 3 women are responsible for 4 songs at #1 – only 2 of which are solo female country artists. The disparity is exacerbated within the Top 20, wherein 56 men release 111 Top 20 songs, and only 9 women release 14 Top 20 songs.
Billboard’s chart rules play an important role here. Country Airplay’s Recurrent Rules determine when a song is eliminated from the weekly chart. As outlined in the Report’s Appendix, descending songs are removed from the Country Airplay chart after 20 weeks if they rank below #10 in detections or audience – so long as they are not still gaining enough audience points to bullet. Songs are also eliminated if they rank below #10 and post a third consecutive week of audience decline (regardless of total chart weeks on chart). While this is a standard part of the screening process for Billboard charts, these Rules, which keep the chart culture moving, benefit artists that are favoured within radio programming. The number of songs by male artists that peak in the Top 20 is more than double the number of songs by women overall. The number of songs by men that peak in the bottom 40 positions of the chart is nearly double the number of songs by women. Women and male-female ensembles are programming so infrequently on radio that they do not have the same opportunities for advancement in the charts. As a result, these groups of artists that are already disadvantaged within country music culture are further marginalized by the chart’s rules.
The findings are not entirely bleak. There is positive news to be gleaned from the study, in the uptick in representation for female artists at the tail end of this study period. First, following an eight month period in 2018 in which there was an average of 6 songs by women entering the chart, 2019 saw a slow return to the previous 10 song-a-week average. Despite being the only female artist in the Top 10 in the final week of this study period, Maren Morris’s “GIRL” reached #1 on 29 July 2019 – the first solo female country artist to achieve this milestone in 17 months.
Finally, Miranda Lambert celebrated station 112 adds for her new single “It All Comes Out in the Wash” within less than one week of its release to radio. This resulted in the song’s debut at #19 on the chart on 22 July 2019 – a significant accomplishment for any artist. There is much work to be done to create equal opportunities for female artists, 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.
Cultural homogeneity and the Country Airplay chart
“When you include a group that’s been excluded,
you benefit everyone.”
Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift (2019)
What does this mean within the broader landscape of country music culture? What can we learn about the genre’s evolving cultural identity through these results? On 22 July 2019, Country Aircheck reported a 12.9% decline in radio ratings between 2012 and 2019. While the interviewees for this report spoke to the increasing homogeneity and overwhelming pop sound of country format radio, none addressed the obvious decline of female artists that matches this period. SongData’s April 2019 study of country airplay on Mediabase reporting stations revealed a 47.1% decline in songs by female artists on the weekly charts between 2002 and 2018, with a drop of 9% between 2012 and 2018. One cannot help but question the possibility of a positive correlation between the declining format ratings and declining presence of women on country radio.
Perhaps more critical is the impact on diversity within the genre’s ecosystem. Cultural homogeneity has as much to do with the repetition of one type of voice, as it does of musical style. Repetition does not just generate “hits” on the chart, but it develops the sound and culture of musical genre and identity and shapes audience familiarity. Research by Philip A. Russell (1987) has argued a significant correlation between repetition and increased presence of a song within a genre’s culture (in the form of repeated airplay, tenure and height on popularity charts) and audience familiarity. Current practices, which focus heavily on repetition of tracks by mostly male voices, creates familiarity with a more homogenous vocal – and often stylistic and narrative – sound. In this context, female voices (which receive limited and infrequent airplay) have become increasingly unfamiliar to country radio audiences.
Based on these Airplay charts, radio’s listeners would presume that three women – Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris, and Carrie Underwood – are the core female artists in the genre’s culture. These are the only three female country artists to have a Top 10 song in this period. Three women… versus the 47 men afforded enough airtime peak within the Top 10 with 82 songs. This type of repetition completely alters the public’s perception of who is contributing to country music culture. It paints a false picture of the number of women participating in the genre’s culture – women who are not afforded the same access to opportunities to share their music via traditional means on terrestrial radio. More critically, the exclusion of women from this space contributes to the broader crisis of homogeneity within country music culture. 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.
The Report on Billboard’s Country Airplay Chart is available at this link.
Inquiries can be sent to info@SongData.ca.
Aly, Chuck. 2019. “Ratings Show Country Decline.” CountryAircheck 660: 1, 8, 10.
Asker, Jim. 2018. “Country Airplay Chart Lacks any Female Artists in Top 20 for First Time.” Billboard, 5 December.
Gates, Melinda. 2019. The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Change the World (New York: Flatiron Books).
Ghosh, Devarati. 2013. “The Meaningless Florida Georgia Line Billboard Country Songs Record: Who Really Has Country’s Biggest Hit? (ANALYSIS).” Msjbigblog, 2 Aug.
Ghosh, Devarati. 2015. “Country Radio & The Anti-Female Myth: A Data-based Look,” MJSBigBlog, 28 May.
Russell, Philip A. 1987. “Effects of Repetition on the Familiarity and Likeability of Popular Music Recordings.” Psychology of Music 15: 187-97.
Smith, Stacy L., Marc Chouetiti, and Katherine Pieper, 2019. “No Country for Female Artists: Artist & Songwriter Gender on Popular Country Charts from 2014 to 2018,” Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, April.
Watson, Jada. 2019a. “Gender on the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, 1996-2016.” Popular Music & Society 43, no. 1.
Watson, Jada. 2019b. “Gender Representation on Country Format Radio: A Study of Published Reports from 2000-2018.” SongData Reports, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, April 26. Prepared in consultation with WOMAN Nashville.
Inquiries and requests to use or reproduce graphics can be sent to Jada Watson at info@SongData.ca.