Redlining in Country Music 2.0: where do things stand today on representation within the industry?

On 12 March 2021, “Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020)” was released. Taking an intersectional approach to studying representation within the Country music industry, the report drew on four datasets of industry data to examine the results of internal decision-making processes and practices and consider connections between radio programming, label signing, and award nomination processes in the industry mainstream. Through these data, the report revealed the extent to which the industry has privileged white artists and denied opportunity to Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and Asian artists, redlining them to the margins of the industry. 

The release of Redlining in Country Music followed ongoing discussion of representation and the lack of equity, diversity, and inclusivity within the Country music industry that had been unfolding for years but that had emerged to the fore of industry and media discourse during the Covid-19 pandemic. Countless panels, webinars, and meetings unfolded virtually (with much dialogue taking place on social media), all centered on the history of the industry, structural racism embedded in industry and its practices, and the experiences of BIPOC artists in Nashville. But as the industry made its return to in-person programming and activities, the conversation seemingly slowed within Nashville, but was maintained by artist- and journalist-organized initiatives. This includes the development of a suite of programs developed by Apple Country Radio that spotlight music of artists marginalized by the industry, the birth of Black Opry, and the growth of Country Soul Songbook Summit and Rainbow Rodeo, to name a few.

To many watching the Nashville mainstream, it looked like things could be changing: Mickey Guyton co-hosted the Academy of Country Music Awards (2020), released a debut album (2021), received increased attention for her music, and sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl (2022); Jimmie Allen was named New Artist of both the ACM (2020) and CMA (2021) awards; and a group of new Black, Biracial, and Latinx artists were signed to Nashville labels – some of whom have already toured with major-label artists over the last two years. 

But close examination of radio playlists and industry charts tell a different story about the industry’s response to conversations about the historic and continued whiteness and maleness of the Country music industry. The attention to the lack of diversity from both inside and outside of Nashville has not translated into change within industry practices, especially within radio programming. 

Where exactly does the industry stand today? Has there been any change or diversification within the systems of production, distribution, and recognition in Nashville? Released on Friday, March 17, 2023 during a panel at SXSW hosted by RenderATL, Redlining in Country Music 2.0 returns to the central questions posed in the initial report, updates the datasets to include radio, chart, label, and award data from the last two years to analyze industry activity in 2021 and 2022. New to this study is the inclusion of MusicRow’s Songwriter charts, to open dialogue about representation in other creative arenas within the industry.

Key findings

The results presented here reveal little change in radio and on airplay charts – in fact, in many respects the situation has worsened. Key findings presented in this report include:

  • More BIPOC artists have had songs on Country format radio, but this has not translated to increased airplay;
  • Most of the airplay for songs by BIPOC artists is for songs by 3 men (Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Darius Rucker);
  • BIPOC women remain absent from programming (receiving just 0.05% of the airplay in 2021 and 0.03% in 2022), with none of their songs in regular rotation during daytime hours;
  • Despite new label signings in 2021 and 2022, nearly all of the BIPOC artists on major labels are men; and
  • BIPOC artists have received nominations in CMA and ACM artist-centered categories but remain absent from Single and Album categories.

The study addresses two trends emerging in the industry. The first concerns the increase in airplay for songs by multiethnic ensembles and collaborations, finding that the collaborative tracks with the most airplay are led by white men artists. The BIPOC men contribute, then, as featured artists with limited airtime on these tracks, showing the continued dominance of white men even within multiethnic collaborations. 

The second trend concerns the rise of collaborations between solo men and women artists. This increase in collaborative records has coincided with a decline in airplay for women artists (down to 11% by 2022). Given that radio programmers code ensembles of men and women artists as “female” within their programming practices, it seems likely then that these collaborations seemingly taking the place of airplay for songs by women, but they are all collaborations of white artists and contribute to the continued exclusion of BIPOC women within the industry. 

It’s critical to acknowledge that the data highlighted in this report reflect the decision-making of radio programmers which in 2022 continue to cement a harmful binary narrative not just about race and ethnicity, but also about gender identity and sexuality. In 2022, 0.135% of the airplay on country format radio was for songs by queer country artists — 0.128% of which was for songs by Brothers Osborne. The remaining 0.007% was divided between songs by Brooke Eden (0.001%), a duet by Jillian Jacqueline and TJ Osborne (0.004%), Lil Nas X (0.001%), and Lily Rose (0.001%). Non-binary and trans Country artists have yet to receive support from the format.

MusicRow’s songwriter charts offers the opportunity to go behind-the scenes in cultural space that privileges whiteness and maleness. White men songwriters dominate the charts. 385 unique songwriters appeared on MusicRow’s Top Songwriters chart between 2019-22, 95.5% of whom are white songwriters, with just 4 (1.0%) Black men, and 4 (1.0%) Biracial men. Only 1 of the 4 Black artists make their career as a professional songwriter, the other 3 being label-signed artists with writing credits on their own songs. Here, as with other spheres of the industry, Black women Country songwriters are absent. 

The results presented here reveal the enduring racial and gendered hierarchy within the industry, showing the 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, including future artists, and songwriters.  

Redlining in Country Music 2.0 addresses contemporary issues pertaining to representation in the industry, focusing on the two years following the original study period (2021 and 2022). The report’s methodology is outlined on the first page of the Appendix, describing SongData’s approach to intersectional coding and analysis, as well as the sources of industry data. Here, as before, the results show the continued cultural redlining of BIPOC artists in the industry and the various ways in which current practices perpetuate the white racial framing of Country music culture. This report does not repeat the historical and contextual framing presented in the initial Redlining in Country Music study. Readers that do not know this history or have not read the March 2021 report are encouraged to start there, as it offers critical contextual framing to the findings presented here. Redlining in Country Music 2.0 is a follow-up to the original study, addressing what has or has not changed in the industry over the last two years.

Have a look at a snapshot of the results presented at SXSW in March 2023! (Presentation notes are available for download here.)

Industry change with old machines?

As Andrea Williams recently observed in conversation with Elamin Abdelmahmoud for CBC’s Commotion, “we still don’t have a path where a Black artist can come in can follow the blueprint, can follow the 10-year plan, if you will, get signed. A songwriter or producer can come in, can make connections with publishers, get signed. […] While we have these kinds of surface-level efforts […] the machinery itself […] remains the same.”

This report reveals that “old machinery” is still at work in 2022. Yes, a few more BIPOC artists have had songs on Country radio or have been signed to labels, but the systems that surround them – especially the women – have not changed since their 1920s inception. Not only does this system not provide a clear path for BIPOC artists in Country music, but its internal practices – daytime programming and lack of retention for recurrent airplay – also erase contributions as they are being made. 

And yet, simply “adding and stirring” new artists into the industry is not the answer. Echoing Marcia J. Citron, there is danger in mechanically adding new artists and works into the system, especially those artists who are outside of the system, without questioning the system and conceptualizing its reconstitution. Visibility counts for a lot, Citron argues, but it is not the whole picture. This cannot just be about the artists on the stage, the industry must think more holistically about the system: about the songwriters, the producers and engineers, studio and touring musicians, the label-publisher-management teams surrounding artists, the roadies, and the makeup artists and wardrobe consultants, too. It should extend to programmers and deejays at radio, editorial staff and programmers at digital service providers, to the data analysts managing industry charts, and to the journalists and individuals writing about the industry – from those conducting interviews, writing reviews, developing content for media, curating exhibits at museums, and more. The industry cannot just add BIPOC artists without changing the way the system works and without changing the individuals that work in the system. 

There can be no change with old machines – with a century-old system that looks back to past practices, conventions, and data to make decisions about the future. The past dwells in this old machine, and the 2021-2022 data studied here reveals no signs of change.

Read Redlining in Country Music 2.0.

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