New Report: Inequality on Country Radio – 2019 in Review

by Jada E. Watson

Twenty years ago, today, the Dixie Chicks celebrated their third consecutive week in the #1 position of the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks Chart with “Cowboy Take Me Away”. Joining the trio in the chart’s top positions were 7 more female artists:

  • Faith Hill with “Breathe” at #5,
  • Reba McEntire with “What Do You Say” at #6,
  • Martina McBride with “Love’s the Only House” at #10,
  • Jo Dee Messina with “Because You Love Me” at #11,
  • SheDAISY with “This Woman Needs” at #12,
  • LeeAnn Rimes with “Big Deal” at #15, and
  • Chely Wright with “It Was” at #19.

That’s 8 songs by women in the Top 20 positions of the radio chart – making up 40% of the week’s top songs. An additional 12 songs by female artists charted outside of the Top 20 on the 19 February 2000 chart, bringing the count to 20 songs (26.7%) on the then 75-position weekly chart.

Last year in this same week, just 2 songs by women were in the Top 20 of the Billboard Airplay Chart – Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins” at #14 and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Miss Me More” at #18, making up 10% of the top songs. Eight other songs by women ranked in the bottom 40 positions of the chart – bringing the count to just 10 songs (16.7%) of the week’s chart.

Over the course of this 20-year period, the culture of Billboard’s airplay chart changed so drastically that the percentage of songs by women in the Top 20 declined 75% (from 8 songs to just 2). While the chart itself reduced in size (dropping from a 75- to 60-position chart in October 2012), by 2019 there were as many charting songs by women overall as there were in the Top 20 two decades earlier. 

Today, SongData is releasing a new study on gender representation in country music. Prepared in partnership with CMT’s Equal Play campaign, this report evaluates the last year in country music and investigates the path to becoming the 10%. With a desire of working toward Equal Play for all artists, the report reflects on how this culture can change. The results presented here provide a clear perspective on the current status of women in the genre and outlines a path to increasing the 10%.

There are several Briefs associated with this study, a 9-page Brief on the Mediabase Airplay Reports, a 5-page Brief on the Billboard Airplay Charts, and a final Brief on Billboard‘s Yearend Streaming, Digital Song Sales and Hot Country Songs charts. These briefs inform an examination of country music culture over the last 10 years, focusing on the downward trajectory for songs by women in 2019. There are also positive signs of change, and this study highlights the moments of increased presence of women on playlists and charts. The full analysis can be read in the Report.

Ten percent is a key statistic for women in country music in 2019. Ten percent represents the space that women occupied within country music culture:

  • 10% of the spins for songs within the Top 150 on the Yearend Airplay Reports between 2010 and 2019;
  • 10% of the daily spins on the Weekly Airplay Reports in 2019;
  • 10% of the songs in the Top 20 of both Mediabase’s and Billboard’s WeeklyAirplay Charts in 2019;
  • 10% of the songs in the Top 10 of both Mediabase’s and Billboard’s Weekly Airplay Charts in 2019; and
  • 10% of the songs on the Billboard’s YearendAirplay Chart in 2019.

Ten percent. Depending on the time of day a listener tunes-in to their local station, that’s barely enough to be heard. It’s certainly not enough exposure to become known, to build a fanbase, to climb charts, to gain enough recognition to have access to opportunities and resources within the industry. It’s just enough airplay to show that songs by women are receiving airplay, but not enough to make their work visible to viewers. Over the last 20 years, women’s music has become invisible through the quota system that has limited their space on playlists and their access to prime location in daily rotation.

There were, however, very minor improvements in 2019. First, there was a 1.2% increase in daily spins for songs by women last year, from 8.9% in 2018 to 10.1% in 2019. Barely a notable change, to be sure, the increase is made worse by its placement in the daytime: the evening and overnights… While an increase in the evenings and overnights might help a song’s chart trajectory, it does little to help an artist develop her network and fanbase. Any increase at the level of spins is thus neutralized by the time at which these songs are spun: the potential impact on an audience is negligible and women’s voices continue to be invisible to radio listeners.

Second, toward the end of 2019 more songs by women appeared on both airplay charts. With more songs by women on both the full Mediabase reports and Billboard Charts, there is hope that change is in the air. This is echoed in the two-week reign of Maren Morris’ “The Bones” in the #1 position of both Mediabase‘s and Billboard‘s Country Airplay charts. Morris the first female artist to have multiple #1 songs since Carrie Underwood’s Storyteller and Kelsea Ballerini’s The First Time in 2016.

These accomplishments are cause for celebration and hopefully a sign of change. But greater change is needed to work toward building a culture that is more inclusive of diverse voices. This study reflects on the relationship between airplay activity and the charts, and consider the impact that the declining presence of women on radio playlists has on the broader genre culture. It also discusses pathways to change, looking at a recent example of a station using its platform to support women and re-evaluating its programming practices to increase the 10%.

For too long, the industry has limited the opportunities and space available for women in the genre, allowing only a handful to succeed at once. As a result, women have become absent from main channels of dissemination – radio, streaming, tours, festivals, and invisible within charting cultures. Along with changes in representation, the genre will begin to change, too; music will sound less homogenous, it will become more innovative and fresh, and it will represent a wider segment of the population.

To echo the words of Caroline Criado Perez in her ground-breaking Invisible Women, “when women are able to step out from the shadows with the voices and their bodies… things start to shift.” Their stories will be heard. Their voices will become known and familiar. Their successes will be celebrated and their talents honoured. The gaps will begin to close. It’s time for Equal Play.

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