A Country Music Conference Dares Wonder: Could 2020 Be ‘the Year of the Woman’?

Country Radio Seminar sure seemed bullish on women, for a format recently characterized as female-unfriendly. Is the turnaround real?

Ashley McBryde Country Radio Seminar, Day 1, Warner Music Nashville, USA - 19 Feb 2020

Taking his seat for a panel on the subject of women in country music at Country Radio Seminar last week, one of the speakers, Damon Moberly, VP of promotion at the Mercury Nashville label, made a quip about what a minefield the topic has been.

“Doing the female panel. What could go wrong?” Moberly asked, rhetorically. “’It’ll be fun,’ they said.”

Kidding or not, he wasn’t wrong about how the famously wide gender disparity at the format has been something a lot of execs and programmers have not been eager to publicly address, after all the beating up the format has taken from female artists, the press and even some of its own. Not many have been begging to speak up to either rationalize or suggest fixes for women accounting for only about 10% of airplay and chart positions, and in some weeks complete exclusion from the top 10.

But a panel was finally convened on the topic at the 2020 Country Radio Seminar, and it was not nearly as un-“fun” for the participants as it might have been in any other recent year, thanks to a fresh wave of good news that made it seem as if strides might be being made. Through a happy stroke of coincidental timing (or maybe conference organizers even saw it coming), CRS took place during the week in which Maren Morris’ “The Bones” was enjoying its second week at No. 1 on the country airplay charts, becoming the first single by a solo country female to spend consecutive weeks on top since 2012.

The positive indicators didn’t stop there. “This is a great week to be a female at radio. I woke up this morning with five in the top 20,” said moderator Katie Dean, SVP of promotion at MCA Nashville, pointing toward Morris being joined in the upper ranks by Carly Pearce, Kelsea Ballerini, Ingrid Andress and Gabby Barrett. These last two artists in particular were being pointed to as signs of health — both are on their debut radio singles (with “More Hearts Than Mine” and “I Hope,” respectively), and both are seen as having a solid shot at No. 1 their first time out. When was the last time women had 25% representation in the top 20? It’s been so long, even the chart experts aren’t sure.

Said David Corey, country brand manager for the Boston-based Beasley Media Group stations, “Seeing particularly what’s happened in the last six months, and seeing what’s coming over the next little while, 2020 needs to be the year of the female, because the music is great and the artists are great. And if the time is gonna come I think it needs to be right now.”

Making the rounds at Country Radio Seminar, it was easy to believe, for a few days, that this really could be the Year of the Woman in country, just through happenstance and quality, if not through any concerted effort to make it so. The two reigning female superstars of the format, Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, both sat for Q&As at the conference in front of full houses. Ballerini headlined the Amazon Music-hosted opening night concert with material previewing an imminent album. At UMG Nashville’s annual Ryman showcase, a previous titan of country radio, Reba McEntire, announced her return to the label that gave her her start, renewing hopes that someone is putting money into the idea that an iconic veteran might still have a place on radio.

But it was a revolving slate of frosh or relative newcomers that really offered hope for a return to the days when women’s voices in country weren’t a rarity. Barrett, an “American Idol” alumnus, was everywhere at the conference, from expertly singing the National Anthem at CRS’ opening ceremonies to multiple acoustic and electric versions of her rising hit “I Hope,” which connects solidly in the tradition of another “Idol’s” country smash, Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.” Andress, as brash a personality as country has seen lately, has a moving ballad called “More Hearts Than Mine” that some programmers say could be one of the biggest songs of the year. Multiple award winner Ashley McBryde, whom seemingly every radio person in the world adores, yet has a hard time breaking out of medium rotation, came to CRS to regale radio with “One Night Standards” — and if that song can’t get wanton motel sex back onto country radio, nothing will. These were just the tip of the iceberg at a conference that featured multiple public or private appearances by fierce talents like Tenille Townes, Caylee Hammack, RaeLynn, Runaway June and, in a possible star-is-finally-born moment for someone who’s been knocking around for years, Mickey Guyton.

But have the gatekeepers flung open the doors, or is the current wave of upstarts destined to prove just how katy-barred they still are?

At the panel titled “All the Singles, Ladies: Breaking Female Artists,” Dean said that one of the purposes of the panel would be to “talk about what we can do to even the playing field,” there were few ideas offered to keep women from cycling back out of the top 20 just as quickly as they cycled in. Certainly no one in radio was about to suggest that the format should take up anything like a percentage guarantee, a la CMT’s recent announcement that it would hereafter devote 50% of all video plays to women. Even radio shows devoted specifically to women, like the one Bobby Bones hosts, were cited by one panelist as counterproductive.

“Are there any female artists in the room? You want to be treated equally, right? Not better? Equally?” Corey asked. “We were talking backstage about some stations that do a specialty female-only show on Sunday night or whenever. I think that actually can work against what we’re trying to do here, not help it, because with that, you’re treating them differently. And what happens if everybody starts to do a specialty female-only show, and that’s where you’re hearing them but nowhere else? So I think (male and female artists) need to be treated equally, not better and obviously not worse, because I think that’s how you end up with fair.”

Not surprisingly, it was a female panelist took issue with that belief in the inevitability of fairness, with Marion Kraft, CEO of Shopkeeper Management, which represents Lambert and Townes, countering Corey’s statement.

Noting that it’d just been said that “we don’t want to be treated better,” Kraft retorted: “Actually, we do want to be treated better. For just this year! Starting next year, you can treat us the same. But right now, we want to be treated better. Because we have come a long way and we’re still here, we’re still battling it, and we belong in this format. And if you guys don’t have these great females in your format anymore, you’re gonna be sad, because you’re not going to have really great voices to put in between all the advertising that you are putting out there. So just know this one thing, and Amazon is an example, and we have lots of other great streaming services,” she said. “The fan goes where they play the music that they want to hear. So don’t ignore the fan, because they are your bread and butter just like they are our bread and butter. So just know, if you guys don’t give them what they want, they have places to go now.”

Amazon Music senior country music curator Emily Cohen was on hand to provide evidence that fans might indeed be finding their female artists somewhere else. “Our customers are actively asking for female artists” on the Echo and other devices, Cohen said. “From July 2019 to January of this year, we saw almost a 60% growth in requests for female artists,” and 65% for Lambert specifically, she added.

Yet the belief persists that data shows country radio listeners are getting exactly what they want, and that the desires of the format’s majority female listenership, not sexist programmers, are the reason for an overwhelmingly male-dominated diet.

“A real hot one for me personally is when I’m told females don’t want to hear females on the radio,” Dean said. Agreed Kris Daniels, now senior manager of music programming at Radio Disney Country, “I’ve heard that the majority of my career at radio, but I’ve never seen it in writing. So I’ve always wondered, where does that come from?” Further confirmation came from Johnny Chiang, director of operations for the Cox Media Group: “I don’t know where that started. But I’ve heard that my whole career. When I was starting out at a pop station in L.A. and I was the music director, my PD had a rule: no two women back to back — and this was a pop station.”

“Obviously we’ve all seen the tweet about that rule,” said Dean, referring to the twitterstorm that began when a Variety writer mentioned the rare occurrence of back-to-back women on an L.A. country station, kicking up apoplectic feedback from Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves and hundreds of others when one station confirmed the unspoken rule against consecutive ladies. “You bring up something important, which is, this (disparity now) seems to be unique to this format. This debate is not happening in pop. Women are ruling the roost over there. Since the ‘90s, has the P1 shifted?”

Nate Deaton, general manager of KRTY in San Jose (named large-market GM of the year in awards given out Friday night), suggested that the wave of superstar women in the late ‘90s was an anomaly, with pop crossover artists like Shania Twain and Faith Hill taking the format in a different direction than it ultimately ended up being. “I think there was a big move in this format in the late ‘90s to be an AC radio format,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily just the female artists… (But) it really didn’t separate us enough from the AC stations.”

Deaton doesn’t see any sexism in the current system or think that women face longer odds as a rule. “I don’t think it’s just a female artist problem. I think it is a new artist problem,” said the San Jose GM. “There is a tremendous lack of new artist airplay at the format. Imagine if you were a record company and you didn’t put out any new music… that’s what we’re doing at radio. We’re relying on our capital. We’re not breaking new artists. … When I last looked, of the top 70 airplay songs right now, we’re playing every female. But we also play more currents; we’re in the innovation capital of the world, in Silicon Valley, so we play a lot of new music. … Right now this week we have five female records testing in our top 10: Miranda, Gabby, Kelsea, Ingrid and Ashley. And if you’re not playing Ashley McBryde, wake up. Everything she does is amazing, and if you’re not playing it, you’re missing it. But (testing) is just a tool. I think that if you play the songs (only) in overnights and say it’s not testing well, you’re wasting your time.” Plus, he pointed out, “Male songs test bad, too. Sometimes — imagine this — it’s not a good song.”

Deaton is a big proponent that country radio remains a meritocracy. When a question submitted via the app came up about why “stations are reluctant to play singers like Kacey and Ashley, to name a few, even though they have the streaming numbers to back them up from a desire consumer-wise,” he answered: “Up here, I think we’ve all played Kacey. We’re all playing Ashley… I think the best song wins. And sometimes… I mean, Miranda made an amazing record (with her latest release). The last record before this (the “Weight of These Wings” album), I mean, even she admitted here yesterday it wasn’t chock full of hits. Sometimes that happens. And that’s the record she wanted to make. So we’re in the business of playing hits. By the way, ‘Bluebird’ (Lambert’s currently rising single) is a hit.”

Kraft tried to set the record straight on what Lambert had copped to about her previous album. “Trust me, it was kind of frustrating for me that we couldn’t get any of Miranda’s songs from ‘Weight of These Wings’ played. Especially ‘Tin Man’ — I think it’s a huge hit. But you know what? You can’t hang on to the ones that can’t work. You kind of just go, okay you didn’t like this one? How about that one? That’s the perseverance we’ve stuck with.” Kraft pointed out that for Lambert, it took four years into her recording career to get her first top 10 song and another two to get a No. 1, so these struggles are familiar. “It feels a little bit redundant, that 15 years later we’re still having this conversation, but here we are.”

Label panelists spoke of a “penalty box” they believe female artists get assigned to more often than men if a single doesn’t work. Said Mercury Nashville’s Moberly, “We’ve always been fearful of putting  a single out, especially with females, and having it fail. We stay in so long (without pulling a single and going onto the next) because of that particular thought. We’re afraid to get off of them because of what it may do penalty-box on the next one. … Maddie & Tae came out with ‘Friends Don’t,’ and we got up the chart with it, but we couldn’t get everyone in at the same time. Now they’ve got one (‘Die from a Broken Heart’) that’s out-testing 27 songs ahead of it on the chart… It’s gonna take a minute.”

Generally unspoken was how consolidation has put more programming power in the hands of fewer people. Kraft alluded to it when she said that the program directors on the panel “have a lot of autonomy in programming what they want to program,” suggesting that not everyone does. It came up in a different context at Friday’s New Faces dinner, which had Charlie Monk, one of the co-founders of CRS and “the Mayor of Music Row,” returning to his role as a monologist/roastmaster. His most pointed joke at the dinner alluded to one of those conglomerates’ recent mass layoffs: “It’s kind of sad. I was going to do an In Memoriam segment tonight, but iHeart beat me to it three weeks ago,” he said, to a mix of laughs and groans.

On the less grave side, Monk also had a joke that made light of CMT’s “Equal Play” initiative. “CMT recently announced it’s going to start splitting content 50/50 between male and female,” he said, “so basically between every episode of ‘Dukes of Hazzard,’ there’ll be one episode of ‘Reba.’”

Consolidation was again the subject of one of his one-liners. “You may not know it, but I’m an award-winning music publisher,” Monk said, setting up one of his jokes. “I found out today that one of my songs has been added to every country station in America. Yep, Rod Phillips and Charlie Cook both liked it.” (Phillips is the top country honcho at iHeartMedia; Cook is in that role at Cumulus Media.)

“The chains are huge for the growth of a record. If you’ve got a Lauren Alaina that’s been out for 14 or 16 weeks and you pick something up from iHeart, it just propels you up the charts to such a degree,” said Damon. Added Dean, on the subject of chain airplay, “If we had had a national platform on Claire Dunn, we’d be taking about a platinum single instead of one that sold 300,000 … Once it gets to a certain point, it’s gonna have to perform on its own, but what we’re trying to do is get to that point. We don’t want to be buried in overnights for six months… we need to know. It doesn’t behoove us orradio to stay on records that don’t work. The only way we know that is to get the airplay” — in waking hours, she meant, referencing the wide belief that many stations give female artists token adds that essentially get them stuck in the middle of the night and the equally twilight zone-ish mid-40s on the charts.

The buck for the low percentages for women was sometimes passed to the labels. “It’s critical for labels to sign more female artists,” said Beasley Media Group’s Corey. “If there’s any chance that the radio groups — and there’s been some discussion over the last few weeks about this — can make a commitment to playing more, we need the labels to sign more artists as well. Can you make that happen?” he asked Dean with a smile.

“UMG is in,” responded Dean. “At UMG, a third of our roster is female, and as far as I know, that is actually the leading standard right now. Now, they’re in various stages of development obviously, and that’s obviously part of it too, because you also don’t want to bring something to market you don’t think is ready. And we’ve all had those issues where we’ve had maybe the song is right but may be the artist is not connecting for whatever reason…. I was talking to a national female programmer yesterday who said to me, ‘Please don’t bring me any new female with a ballad.’ I thought that was interesting, because do we feel like females tend to launch on ballads? … Going back to the tweet, we saw Kacey Musgraves’ reply was, ‘Well, you can play 18 songs by a male back to back.’ Is that a tempo argument? And I’ll be honest, it’s been told to me by programmers: ‘If you’re launching a female, it better be better than everything else that’s on our desk.’”

Responded Corey: “Mickey Guyton. I heard that song (Guyton’s not yet released female-themed anthem “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” – as covered in Variety) about an hour ago at the Ryman. I could play that tomorrow. As a matter of fact I could play it today. … On playing ballads, Ingrid Andress has a ballad out right now that’s going to be one of the biggest songs of the year. I do think that we as radio programmers need to be concerned a little bit about tempo and make sure that the station isn’t slow all the time. But I’ve never been afraid of a ballad. So: Mickey Guyton!”

Other female artists —proven, unproven and slipping back and forth somewhere in between — came up for advocacy. “I’m a huge fan of Kassi Ashton,” said Kraft, pointing out that she benefitted early on fro the CMA Kickstarters program Kraft helped birth. “She’s so interesting and there are so many stories in her.” Of her own client, Townes, who is a relative superstar in her native Canada but bubbling under in the States, Kraft said, “Tenille is doing amazing. We are struggling at radio, but we’re kind of used to that a little bit, so it’s not feeling as bad. We’re just gonna give you guys songs till hopefully at some point you’ll hear a song that you want to jump in on. This artist is not going away. It’s gonna take some time, and we’re gonna wait it out and keep going till she gets to that place.”

On the more veteran side, Corey said, “If you’re not playing Lauren Alaina’s new single (‘Getting Good’) right now, I mean, get your ears checked. It’s a smash.” Deaton added, “Runaway June, it’s great to see them doing what they’re doing (with ‘Buy My Own Drinks’ having gone top 10)… ..I think it’s a shame that Lindsay Ell has been around since 2014 and her first hit was (a duet) with Brantley Gilbert. In my opinion (Ell’s follow-up single) ‘I Don’t Love You’ is the best thing she’s ever done and it can’t even get inside the top 50, and it’s a damn shame. When people have hits and you don’t play the next one, shame on you. That’s how we build artists; that’s how we build the format.”

Damon: “If you’re not playing Ashley McBryde, there’s not much better. I remember at the CMAs when she won best new artist, and there was all this conversation about ‘Ahh, I gotta get on that.’ And you guys still aren’t on that. You’re not gonna love it all and can’t play it all. But if you find a female record that you love, you gotta be a champion.”

“I have a question for my fellow panelists,” said Corey, who only switched from pop to country programming three years ago. “Do you think Taylor (Swift) leaving the format hurt?”

“One hundred percent,” answered the veteran Deaton. “Absolutely.”

But as a corollary, perhaps, there’s a parallel story that’s happier for country radio: Maren Morris not leaving the format. In 2018, when Variety published a piece on the dire straits for female artists at radio, RJ Curtis, who was about to be named executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters and CRS, spoke about Morris as a possible test case for country’s female-star retention. ““Maren had one of the biggest records of the year. Unfortunately, it was on Top 40 [‘The Middle’],” Curtis said then. “Maren has had to struggle getting traction, and other formats are taking our artists.”

Since that story was published, of course, Morris has had not just one No. 1 single off her latest release (the title track, “Girl,” in 2019) but two (with the early 2020 dominance of “The Bones”). Does her ascendance to repeat chart-topper represent an example of the format taking to heart the warnings of Curtis and others like him? Or has a format that said “Meh,” en masse, to Musgraves’ last record, which won the Grammy and CMA for album of the year — and then still maintains “The best songs win” — really taken the best lessons to heart? With so much great music by women in the hopper, the year may tell which of these conflicting examples really foretells the format’s future.