CMT Throws a Data Party to Prove Country Fans Really Do Want More Female Voices

At a presentation held at WME in Nashville, panelists hoped radio will consider a survey showing country listeners are behind gender parity.

CMT Throws a Data Party to
Courtesy Viacom

When debates arise over the lack of airplay for women at country radio, the industry is often told that the answers lie in the generally unpublished research stations do to determine which songs their listeners like most. Now, proponents for the women of country are battling back with data of their own, looking to fight figures with figures — arriving at numbers they’re eager to publicize, indicating there’s an appetite to make women a much bigger part of the mix.

As the annual Country Radio Seminar got underway in Nashville this week, CMT went off-campus to the WME offices to throw a veritable data party, regaling supporters with the encouraging results of a research study the cable network had commissioned and hosting a panel to discuss what they hope the industry takes away from the listener survey.

“The big headline of what we learned from talking to them is that today’s country music listeners want equal play for female artists on the radio, as well as more female artists in country music in general,” said Sam Milkman, executive VP of the radio research firm Coleman Insights, which polled 1,000 country listeners nationwide in the format’s target 25-54 demo. Milkman said 36% of listeners “strongly” agree they want equal play for female artists on country radio, and another 48% agree, for a total 84% level of support.

“The next headline is that in the survey, most of them understood that male artists are dominating country radio,” he continued. “We asked, when you listen to a country radio station, do you think there are more songs by men or women? And 73% said ‘I think there are more male artists on country radio’… They’re hearing that. They know that’s what they’re listening to. But what do they prefer?”

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Chris Willman / Variety

Milkman pointed to survey results that had 53% of listeners saying they have no gender preference when it comes to artists on the radio. Additionally, 47% of active format listeners and 44% of all listeners said they would be open to listening even more to a station that made a point of spotlighting female artists. (CMT’s efforts to highlight women in programming have apparently not gone unnoticed: among CMT viewers, a larger number, 55%, took that activist position.)

The CMT party was officially unaffiliated with Country Radio Seminar, which is bringing thousands of programmers and DJs to Music City this week. On Thursday afternoon, CRS will host its own panel on breaking female artists, at which point the CMT-sponsored study could come up for debate.

What is almost certain to be brought up at the official CRS panel on the subject is that the current charts bear some of the best results for female artists in country and their supporters in years. Maren Morris’ “The Bones” just became the first song since 2012 by a solo female artist to top the country airplay charts for two consecutive weeks. That’s a good news/bad news stat, of course: good news for right now, and fairly tragic-feeling for the intervening eight years.

Said panelist Mike Molinar, GM of Big Machine Music, “‘The Bones’ is the first multi-week No. 1 since 2012, and in those aspects that’s a yay. We’re incredibly proud of our friend Maren for that accomplishment, and I feel like she is going to do that many times again. But at the same time, it’s kind of like a ‘Ooh, can we not make it another eight years till a woman repeats at No. 1?'”

There’s more (relatively) good news than that, though — there are currently a total of five songs by women in the top 20. Although Morris’ chart-topper is the only one in the top 10, the four joining her in the No. 11-20 rankings, all with a shot at climbing in to the upper ranks, are Ingrid Andress’ “More Hearts Than Mine,” Gabby Barrett’s “I Hope,” Carly Pearce’s “I Hope You’re Happy Now” (with Lee Brice as her duet partner), and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Homecoming Queen?” (Over the past few years, Ballerini has been the only woman besides Morris capable of taking multiple singles to the top in the format.)

That this 25% representation in the top 20 is a sign of newfound hope and/or a serious aberration was pointed up by a different study conducted by Dr. Jada Watson, who was also on hand for the presentation, held in an amphitheater-type setting in the WME offices high up in one of booming Nashville’s downtown skyscrapers.

“The average in 2019 was two songs by women in the top 20,” said Watson, saying 10% airplay representation was a consistent figure, for a format in which, obviously, not just one of every 10 singles released is by a woman. When the survey was narrowed down from the top 20 to the top 10, Watson pointed out, things could look more discouraging. “There is a period of 10 weeks of the start of the year with no women in the top 10, and a period of 10 weeks again at the end of the year with no women in the top 10.”

In overall airplay, Watson said there were gains, but that these were attributable to token adds for women’s songs that only got played in off hours, contributing to the phenomenon of songs that get stuck in the 30s and 40s on the charts. “There was a 1.2% increase from last year, to 10.1% which is great, but that increase happened in the evening and the overnights, so this is negligible. It doesn’t even matter if you’re going to give more scans,” she said, if they’re buried. “It might help your chart trajectory, but women’s voices remain invisible in the dayparts, when the percentage of listeners is higher — and people are awake,” she added dryly.

Leaving aside the good news of currently having a recently unheard of 25% representation — for 50% of the population — in the top 20, looking back at the more typical 10% stat, there was a human toll to be brought up amid the numbers. Watson looked back the boom days for female artists in the format in the late ’90s, when representation for women in country airplay trended more into the 30-something percentages, but among that 30-plus percent were some of the format’s biggest superstars, like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks. Currently, most survey respondents could only name Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood as country’s female stars, when asked the question unaided, and neither has lately been anywhere near the top of the list of the format’s most-played.

“Last summer, my 6-year-old said, ‘Mommy, I don’t hear any women’,” Watson said. “And it’s really hard for me to even understand how we got here, because when I was a teenager in the 1990s I was always hearing women on the radio.” Although Watson has sometimes been cast as an antagonist to country radio, she pointed out that she grew up taping weekly country countdown shows and teaching herself to play the songs on the piano. “I had women to look up to, and now my daughter recognizes that she doesn’t hear female voices. So this is what drives me. It’s not just about artists who I’m passionate about listening to and want to hear more of. It’s the next generation of little girls who are in the car with their parents, and they’re not hearing older versions of their voices.”

CMT has made a pledge to offer “Equal Play” to women in its music video programming blocks, and that’s been taken up as well by CMT Radio host Cody Alan, one of the better known air personalities in the format, who has a nightly show from 7 to midnight. But when country radio has only had a 10% percentage of hits by women in recent years, and labels are only putting out songs by women as perhaps three out of every 10 releases, how will CMT’s cable and web channels get to parity without resorting to favoring little-recognized indie records by women amid all the male hits? Admitted Alan, “On CMT Radio Live, when this all first came up, it was like, can we even do this? Does this make sense? Are the songs there? I wanted to prove not only that we could make a statement on radio by making this change to 50/50 , but also that it could sound good and they could sell it great (to advertisers), and it would not be an odd thing, a scary thing, to hear more female voices played on the radio.”

There’s an answer for that. “I think it’s important that we explain what equal play means,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior VP of music strategy, and the force behind the network’s Next Women of Country initiatives. “It’s not that we’re playing all brand-new women every single hour. It’s not about unfamiliarity. It’s about bringing female voices back into the mix, so in video hours, it’s really a balance of new hit songs with maybe golds from 5-10 years ago, also playing hits from the ’90s and bringing those recurrents back in, so within an hour you get a really good equal balance of that.” The same holds true for Alan’s radio show — that in order to get to 50% parity without playing a host of potentially alienating unknowns, there’s going to be a lot of Reba, Faith, Shania, Carrie and Miranda oldies to reaccustom listeners to the sound of the female voice.

Who’s to blame for the inequity? The panel in the WME offices didn’t find any consensus in where to place it.

“I think if we blame only radio, it’s sort of like blaming the waiter at a restaurant who brings you a bad meal, because he’s just the delivery system.,” said Alan “He’s not the cook in the kitchen. So we have to think about this as being a little bigger than just a radio problem, even though I know it’s a focus of so much of this research. Am I being defensive?” he laughed. “I think a little bit.”

The one label rep on the panel, Cris Lacy, senior VP of A&R for Warner Music Nashville, wasn’t going to let record companies take the blame, or at least hers — right now Warner has two newcomer women in the top 20, Andress and Barrett, and they’re pushing another single by Ashley McBryde, “One Night Standards,” to get up there as well. (The lack of a top 10 single yet for McBryde, who is anecdotally a favorite of radio programmers, and who has won both the CMAs’ and ACMs’ new artist of the year awards, remains a point of discussion and curiosity.) Lacy said there would be even more women on the Warner roster if they hadn’t lost out on some bidding wars.

Lacy said that developing female artists sometimes requires an end run around radio, although it’s not just women being broken through alternative models. “We don’t have a throw it against the wall and see if it sticks plan,” said the Warner exec. “We go into a project with a gut instinct, feeling, okay, this is going to be the song that we think could be the radio single — but leading up to that,” Lacy said, pointing to Ingrid Andress in particular, “we’re going to put out ‘Ladylike,’ and we’re gonna put out all these other songs to build the brand, and to build the humans that you want people to attach themselves to and be interested in.” She paused to make the bigger point. “Women are fascinating. I mean, that’s what’s so crazy about all of this is that women are so interesting. You have so many stories to tell, and they’re so open with their feelings, so raw and so honest, and it’s heartbreaking that this is a piece that’s missing when we shut them out.”

The publishing rep on the panel, Molinar, pointed out that female songwriters have accounted for a bigger piece of the pie than female singers. “In these times where we’re not necessarily seeing females represented on the charts as artists, it’s great to have a small snapshot in 2020 where we’re seven weeks in and female songwriters have had a share of six of the No. 1s  in the year so far. And we’re proud at Big Machine Music to represent a couple of songwriters who have accounted for five of those weeks over three songs,” including Laura Veltz, a cowriter on “The Bones” as well as a recent Lady Antebellum’s No. 1 “Never Get Over You.” He also pointed to a non-Big Machine writer, Natalie Hemby, being a co-writer on Jon Pardi’s recent chart-topper, “Heartache Medication.”  “When you look at our female songwriters… who we also just call ‘songwriters’…,” he said, trailing off to laughter and applause.

One puzzle Molinar addressed is why certain songs by women (and men, too) will rack up big consumption numbers — meaning streaming and sales — but die in the 20s, 30s and 40s on the airplay charts.

“Two of my writers, Maddie and Tae, have a song ‘Die from a Broken Heart’ that’s gone gold, mostly off streaming activity — it’s 150 million streams or something like that,” Molinar said. “We can see the consumption per spin for their place in the chart, but they’re in the 30s. Yet there are a number of artists (with little) consumption per spin ahead of them. And it’s kind of a head scratcher, getting this amount of consumption this far back in the chart with such limited airplay. We can see that people are running toward this song, and I feel like that song, especially if that particular song was on the Judds in the ‘90s, would be a smash. And not only would it be a smash for the Judds, but it would influence the next generation of women. I think something that we’re seeing in this trend, especially for going on for a decade, is that we’re talking about the ripple effect… We’re not only minimizing the airplay now, but we’re missing the next generation of female artists that could be inspired by this song.”

Said Fram, “I just don’t know how, as a format, we are not embarrassed that Kacey Musgraves won album of the year — she won country album of the year, yes, but overall album of the year, too (at the Grammys as well as CMAs) — and our format ignored her. I don’t understand how that happens.”

“The Grammys are about quality,” Watson responded. As an “oooh” went up from the audience, Watson backtracked with a smile: “That’s not something I’m saying. That’s something I heard somebody else say.”

Could the problem with gender disparity be with the fans, much as no one wants to pass the buck to them? Along with emphasizing the figure that 84% of listeners are good with the idea of equal play on the radio, the Coleman Insights rep repeatedly touted the figure that 53% of listeners expressed no gender preference. But that leaves 47% who do admit to preferring hearing the voices of one gender or the other — not an inconsiderable amount, some programmers might say. Just over a third of all listeners, 34%, said they prefer male voices over female, while only 13% said they prefer hearing women over men. Even if a majority has no preference, the number of listeners who did confess they’d rather hear dudes could be fuel for those who prefer to keep women as the “tomatoes” in radio’s salad — although supporters of equal play will say that’s a result of years of conditioning that could be undone by less reactive, more proactive programmers.

Some panelists and audience members contended that the call-out research radio does to determine which songs to boost is flawed if it only includes one female voice among a slew of men’s, causing that hook to stand out as foreign. “There is an issue with data bias. This data is inherently gender-imbalanced and incredibly skewed towards men,” said one audience member.

Tracy Gershon, one of the co-founders of the advocacy group Change the Conversation, brought up one of radio’s most oft-spoken, if usually quietly spoked, canards: that the great songs from women have just not been there in big numbers since the glory days of Faith, Shania and the Chicks — a contention that McBryde and Musgraves fans might like to have a word with.

“I’m trying to be nice about this,” said Gershon. “We all want to hold hands and work together. Great. Everybody’s acknowledging there’s a problem. But something keeps coming up… People talk about how women just need to be out there with great songs. That is already happening! It’s very frustrating. We’ve heard it when we’ve had different people (come in) from DSPs or radio: ‘If only they would have a great song, then we could play it’ — when we know there’s a disparity with males who kind of get a pass on mediocre songs. … It is a little bit of an elephant in the room that we still have to remember that is out there.”

“Preach,” murmured Mickey Guyton, one artist in attendance who’s had some great songs of her own passed over in favor of the ball cap brigade.