Redlining in Country Music

Today, SongData is releasing a report entitled “Redlining in Country Music“, which evaluates representation of Black, Indigenous and Artists of color in the country music industry. Drawing on datasets from country format radio, label rosters, and the nominations of select categories awarded by the Country Music Association and the Academy of Country Music. Taken together, these datasets tell part of the story about the ways in which the industry has privileged white artists and denied opportunity to BIPOC artists. 

Key findings

The key findings for this study reveal that at every level of analysis – percentage of songs played, of airplay, of charting songs, of artists signed to major labels, and of award nominations, BIPOC artists make up less than 4.0% of the commercial country music industry. 

The nineteen-year period examined in this study can be divided into three periods defined by activity for songs by BIPOC artists. The key findings hold true for all levels of analysis – from the number of songs on playlists, to the amount of airplay these songs received, and to the number songs that charted. The three periods can be defined as follows:

  1. 2002 to 2007: BIPOC artists are nearly absent from country format radio in the first six years of this study period, an average of just 0.5% of the songs played were by BIPOC artists, and those songs averaged 0.3% of the airplay. 
  2. 2008 to 2013: representation increases (marginally) to an average of 1.5% of the songs played. These songs received an average of 2.0-2.5% of the airplay across this period. 
  3. 2014 to 2020: representation increases again in the final six years of this period and average of about 3.7% of the songs played by 2020 and received 4.8% of the annual airplay.

Even though the data shows an increase across this period both in terms of the songs played (0.5% to 3.7%) and the airplay for those songs (0.3% to 4.8%), this increase was exclusively for songs by BIPOC men. Overall, BIPOC artists received 2.3% of the airplay over the last nineteen years, 95.7% of which went to songs by BIPOC men, 2.7% of which were for songs by BIPOC women – including cross-over artists. The remaining 1.6% went to songs by other BIPOC men. Over the last nineteen years, Black women have not had enough airplay to reach the Top 20 of the chart, which limits the opportunities available to them within the broader industry.

Black LGBTQ+ artists are absent from the country music industry. Except for Lil Nas X, whose “Old Town Road” received very limited airplay on country format radio, no songs by LGBTQ+ artists of color are included in the dataset.

The results for representation on country format radio suggest a racial hierarchy that exists within the industry and considers the deep connections between each facet of the industry. Radio airplay remains an integral component of the development of an artist’s career, including the promotional support received from a label and eligibility for awards by the two main trade organizations. This data suggests that the lack of representation on airplay does not just impact the trajectory of an individual artist, it also impacts the careers of those around them and of future artists. 

What is critical to understand from this study is that these are not just historic issues, they are contemporary issues. The study Brief is followed by a full Report that offers an overview of the historic exclusion of BIPOC artists, and then explains the result of the findings to highlight how industry practices work together to perpetuate already existing inequalities within the industry and push BIPOC artists to the margins. By focusing on how radio, labels, and awards perpetuate cultural redlining in this space, this report shows that the industry’s business model is a self-fulling prophecy that maintains the white racial framing on which the industry was established in the 1920s. It then concludes with a discussion of steps to making change in the industry.

Read Redlining in Country Music.

Questions? Email