Six Month Update on EqualPlay

by Jada E. Watson

On 12 January 2020, CMT Vice President of Music and Talent Leslie Fram pledged 50/50 airplay for its video hours, signaling the beginning of the organization’s EqualPlay campaign. Over the last 6 months, SongData has been tracking weekly airplay via Mediabase’s weekly reports, sharing 2- and 4-month updates. This current report offers a 6-month update on representation on country format radio, evaluating weekly reports up to the 6-month marker of CMT’s initial announcement of 50/50 airplay (from 4 January 2020 to 11 July 2020).

It is imperative to note from the outset that the first 6 months of 2020 have been unpredictably tumultuous. Two weeks following the EqualPlay launch, a devastating tornado ripped through Nashville, destroying homes, businesses, music establishments and community organizations. Just as the city began to rebuild, the fast-moving Coronavirus forced the world to a halt and quarantine in an effort to stop the spread of the virus. The impact of Covid-19 on the world population, health systems, economy, and social and cultural programs has been devastating and not fully realized.

Amidst the global pandemic, social justice has emerged to the fore of public and political discourse, as Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the USA following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. Countries around the world marched in solidarity with the United States, and have begun the process of addressing their own histories with white supremacy. The country music industry has been at the centre of much of this discussion, and come under increased public scrutiny.

To repeat the opening of the 6-month report: Racism baked into the country music industry can no longer be ignored. As much research has shown, the industry was created on a musical color line – one that sought to segregate music not by musical style, but by race and geography. The categories chosen, “hillbilly” and “race”, may no longer be used today (replaced with “country” and “soul” or “R&B”), but they have been reinforced throughout the history of the genre through the development of country radio, the recording industry and of the industry’s popularity charts, as well as the algorithms that underpin streaming services. It has also been perpetuated through continual discussion about “authenticity” that serves to create barriers for artists that are Black, Indigenous and Musicians of Color who are put in a position of defending their place in the genre. This is also a genre that has had ties to the KKK and George Wallace, and whose artists perform under racist names, have released racist songs or sold racially insensitive merchandise, perform at concerts with the confederate flag in full view, and remain silent when Black country artists – and fans – endure aggression after aggression while on stage, back stage, in meet and greet lines, and on social media. This is a conversation that has necessarily extended to other groups excluded from the industry’s mainstream: namely, LGBTQ artists, who have found a home predominantly in Americana.

Nowhere is this discussion more pertinent than in the context of equity, diversity and inclusion on country radio. Evaluating representation through an intersectional lens brings to light the dynamics of oppression and discrimination based on the overlapping identities or artists included – or excluded – from participation. This report, then, aims to address representation through an intersectional lens in order to discuss how practices ingrained within the industry machine active serve to disadvantage women of color and LGBTQ artists, not just white women.

The results of this report echo the 2- and 4-month updates, highlighting positive moments, with caution for the future:

  • There has been an increase in spins from the 10.1% average in 2019, to a high of 17.6% in June and ending on 14.5% by mid-July. The largest increases occurred in the midday, evening and overnight periods, with little improvement in the morning and afternoon periods when audiences traditionally are most likely to tune-in.
  • There has has been an increase in support (in form of spins) for current singles by female artists, but little-to-no improvement for recurrents. While the #1 songs by Morris, Barrett, Andress and Pearce continue to receive airplay in recurrent status, there has been no attempt to fill the gap by re-introducing gold songs by women that audiences know and love (see the appendix for more on songs in recurrent status).
  • There had been an increase in the number of songs in the top 20 positions of the chart — including nearly double the #1 singles by women in the first 7 months of 2020 than in all of 2019. That’s the highest number of #1 songs for female artists since 7 songs hit the top of the chart in 2010 – a decade ago.
  • However, the bottom 30 positions had a significant deficit of songs by female artists. As a result of fewer songs by women entering the chart between March and June, there are just 2 songs by women in the Top 10, one at #13 and gap until #32 … the chart is again heading toward culturally unhealthy levels of representation.

The findings on diversity are perhaps most striking in this report. In this 6-month period, white artists received 91.4% of the format’s airplay, with the majority of the spins for non-white artists divided between two Black solo men: Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. Only 5 of the 189 solo country artists are artists of color and just 1 is a female artist – and her songs have received little-to-no airplay. While artists of color are very much underrepresented, Black female artists seem to be shut out of opportunities at having their songs heard – despite the lengths they have gone to in order to make their music accessible.

LGBTQ artists are also absent from this format. With just two openly gay country artists receiving airplay in 2020 — neither of which with enough airplay to chart on terrestrial, LGBTQ artists are invisible on country format radio. It is worthy to note that one of these artists is the The Highwomen supergroup, which includes singer Brandi Carlile, a group that has been embraced by Sirius XM’s The Highway.

This report maps the evolving terrain of country music’s cultural space, addressing the ways in which the industry is grappling with a century-long practice of viewing white women as secondary to white men, and pushing all other artists to the margins of the genre – or to another genre entirely. Despite increases in spins, songs by white women are still played infrequently on radio, with the majority of airplay in the overnights. The absence of women of color and LGBTQ artists from weekly reports shows their continued exclusion from participation in the mainstream of the genre. Current practices within the industry ensure that success remains attached to the racial category of whiteness, so that people embodying this identity remain at the top.

The full analysis can be read in SongData’s report.