Sarah: Dolly, Loretta, Reba, Shania. These women have blazed the deepest of trails in country music, always pushing boundaries and drawing massive audiences with their versions of three chords and the truth. But scroll through your Spotify Hot Country playlist, or turn on your local country radio station these days, tell me how many women you hear between the Garth’s, the Blake’s and the Chad’s, I’ll wait. Representation of women in country music has always been a problem with women not getting the same amount of airplay enjoyed by men despite seeing their albums go platinum, and as fans flood the fields of country music festivals across Canada this summer, they’d be hard pressed to find a woman headliner. Why is this? How bad is the problem really?
Sarah: I’m Sarah Boesveld in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story.
Jada: I think that it’s a systemic issue in that it’s become an implicit part of their practice that there’s a belief that women aren’t going to sell.
Sarah: Dr. Jada Watson is the principal investigator of the Song Data Project. A recent report of hers found that from the tail end of the 1990’s, when women like Shania Twain and the Dixie Chicks ruled the charts, to the year 2018, the end of the Bro Country era, representation of women on country radio dropped 20%. That’s real bad, y’all.
Sarah: Hi Jada. Thanks for coming on.
Jada: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah: Alright, so we’re in country music festival season right now, a time that I really love personally, just country music is the best. And so, you know, listening to country radio though, listening to country playlist on Spotify I do not see a lot of women there, you know? And this is an established problem that you’ve looked at. Can you just sort of lay the land for me? What is the problem out there on the airwaves and the charts in terms of representation of women?
Jada: Yeah, so especially over the last five years; I’ll just sort of give a brief intro to the last five years, we’re noticing since about 2015 that there is a staggering decline in the number of women who are making popularity charts, and so what that means is if they’re not on popularity charts, that they’re not getting enough airplay on radio to even register a song on the charts. And so what I’ve done is I’ve taken data going back to 2000 when looking at the media base airplay charts and 1996 when looking at Billboard, and were able to see that this decline has been almost a 20 year process in which we’ve seen women declining from about 30% of the popularity charts in the late 1990’s to 10% by 2018.
Sarah: A 20% percent drop, that is staggering and, you know, and so I think about the nineties, for sure, that was a heyday for women right? There’s Shania Twain, there’s Reba McEntire, Trisha Yearwood you know, it was really the time of women. So, you know, can you sort of; Actually, you know, I’d love to talk to you about what got you interested in even representation. Like, were you a fan of all of the women’s music and country music, and what were you thinking; noticing maybe that you were hearing them less. What got you interested in this?
Jada: So in May 2015 a radio consultant did an interview in country air check which is one of the main trade magazines for radio, and he indicated that in order to have strong station ratings or to improve ratings, you want to limit the amount of women you play. And he says to about 13 or 15% of your playlist, and he goes on to say, you know, they’re just not the lettuce of our salad, women are the tomatoes of the of the country music salad.
Sarah: As in like ornamental like not the bulk of what we should be consuming.
Jada: They are; I want to read into that that they are special but that you don’t want too many.
Jordan: It’s probably not what he meant.
Jada: No, you want to spread them out, and so that really sparked my interest. So I started working with Billboard, Arum, Hot Country songs data and really started looking into even just the number ones, and it was just so startling to me that there were almost no women having number one hit songs between…. in that period and so I dug into the data more and I was able to get funding so that I could get access to more data, which is what allowed me to go back to 1996 and really it was just out of pure interest in figuring out what he meant. Because, you know, I listen to women and I listen to a lot of really talented women, and I think of my youth and the way I got into country music my very first album was Wynona Judd’s debut album, and that album means so much to me and, you know, I was in high school in the 1990’s when all the artists you named before were significant players in country music. And so to go from these memories of strong, really powerful women who are dominating my memories to today when there are just so few women on the charts and by extension on radio, it just didn’t make any sense to me.
Sarah: And also the treatment of women since the nineties, too, you know, no one can forget if you’re a country music fan, the Dixie Chicks, like what happened to them with country radio, which was the lead singer Natalie Maines in England around the Iraq war, said that she was ashamed that George Bush, George W. Bush, the then president of United States, was from Texas, her home state, and so she was essentially blacklisted, the band was blacklisted and there was massive, massive protests, and that was just a really startling example of how you know, free speech is treated in the country world, but also how women are treated in the country world and there’s sort of a lot of hindsight looking at that, that it has affected the landscape too right?
Jada: But also the power of radio. Whether it was a direct message from from Cumulus or Clear Channel, or whether it was mom and pop stations across the Southern United States, it shows the incredible power of radio as gatekeepers of the genre for what was then a number one song with Traveling Soldier in March 2003, to fall off the chart, shows just the incredible power of radio in governing country music culture. And so what was interesting to me when I started to work with the data was that that turned out to be a really pivotal period because there was about 49 weeks leading into that Dixie Chicks Traveling Soldier number one hit where there was no women. The last one before that was Martina McBride with Blessed and then it was followed almost 67 weeks later with Redneck Woman by Gretchen Wilson, and so you have essentially in a period of a year and a half, almost two years where there’s one number one song by a woman and they were blacklisted. So it really started to make me think about what’s going on in country music culture because following that decline, that moment when the Dixie Chicks just fell off the chart, that’s when we start to see, really that the number of women are declining, and declining pretty steadily throughout the rest of the 21st century.
Sarah: So the early end of that 20% drop that you charted in your research. Yeah, so what is going on there? You talked about the power of country music radio, how powerful it is, and I know as a country music fan that is quite unique to the music landscape in general. Why is country radio so important VS you know, other ways for artists to get the word out about them and certainly now in the streaming age, which we can get to, but for; just like paint the picture for me about this power and why it’s so strong.
Jada: Well, you know, the genre really started as a result of really good broadcast radio, with evening shows that were like variety shows where country artists would come in and perform. And so there’s just this; there’s just this relationship between radio and labels that I think is unbreakable or maybe it will, but right now it’s a very strong relationship, labels look to radio as as a way of breaking songs, and so artists go on the radio tour to promote their singles and I don’t know if you read Emily Ours piece on the radio tour, I think it came out in June 2017 but it was a really lovely piece on Carly Pearce and her process on the radio tour, and so until marketing activities like the radio tour stop becoming the norm I think that radio will continue to hold power here in how songs are released to the public, and the public too still looks to radio as sort of a beacon of taste makers. Personally, I don’t think there’s a problem with that, I love radio, I listen to radio still, and that’s still the way that I get to hear new music, but the problem is that the decisions are being made in a way that perpetuates sort of an implicit bias. I don’t actually think that radio programmers are intentionally discriminating based on gender, I think that it’s a systemic issue and that it’s become an implicit part of their practice, that there’s a belief that women aren’t going to sell so they might not be working for ratings and there’s all this discussion of the free market and that audiences are predicting or playing a big role in a song’s life cycle on radio. But you know, if you’re not playing women to begin with, your breeding audiences who are not familiar with a different type of voice.
Sarah: Yeah, and so there’s no exposure, exactly.
Jada: Right, so there’s no exposure and so I’m really interested in this issue with creating familiarity and so all radio, not just country, all radios is creating a brand or a sound that their audience wants or is responding to and so what happens when you’re playing 90% men? You’re creating a culture that doesn’t even know how to listen to another type of voice.
Sarah: Well that trickles down as well, I remember going to Boots and Hearts, which is a huge country music festival in Ontario just outside of Toronto and I asked the organizer’s; It was sort of the height of Bro Country, which was back in around 2010 ish, 2011, 2013, and I was like, how do you decide your lineups? Cause it was just a sausage factory, there’s a lot of men, and he’s like, well, we ask our fans, we ask people what they who they want to hear and then they come in, they try to get those artists, and so it feels like a vicious cycle, and so it’s really interesting to hear that, like radio and some other influential players, have sort of, a role and responsibility to kind of cut through that, cut through that cycle and make sort of the taste change in a different direction.
Jada: Yeah, well, and the phrase that’s often thrown about is, it’s a chicken and an egg situation, which I don’t actually like.
Sarah: Good country term.
Jada: But I don’t actually like it, but at the same time there’s no other way to explain it except that something happened in the late 1990’s. Something happened where somebody made a decision that we needed less women if we believe everything we’ve read from this radio consultant, he says that in 1996-97 he did a research study where he eliminated the number of women in his playlist or he cut them by half, and his ratings increased, and then he did the same thing on all of his other stations, and his ratings increased. And so if he’s building this into its consultancy practice, it’s only a matter of time before other stations start programming in the same way. But then, the problem is that if radio’s not gonna play them and labels aren’t going to sign them and publishing houses aren’t going to sign them, and songwriters are going to be told to write for men, not for women….
Sarah: And festivals aren’t going to book women.
Jada: Festivals aren’t gonna book them, they’re not going to get on stadium tours, etc, etc, etc, it is a complete self fulfilling prophecy.
Sarah: And what about the radio scene in Canada? The country radio scene? You’ve been looking at that a little bit for some research you plan to issue later, very soon. What is the landscape like in terms of representation of women?
Jada: Well, I’m sort of sad to say that it’s the same. When looking at the year end charts for the published panel in media base for Canadian Country Stations, I’m seeing the same not in terms of numbers but general shape that men are on the increase and women are on the decrease, and there’s certainly a disparity in the number of spins to the same extent, I believe the ratio that I found was 9.8 to one in 2018 for men to women…
Sarah: Which is huge, like 10 to 1 is the sort of what we’re looking at right?
Jada: Yeah. But there are some interesting things that I’m going to start digging into because what’s interesting to me, I mean, in Canadian radio, there’s the Cancon regulation is where stations need to play a certain percentage of Canadian artists, and I actually wonder how this helps or hinders stations in creating some gender balance. But what was interesting in some preliminary results when I was able to look at the top 10 men and the top 10 women, half of the top 10 women by spins were Canadian women, and culturally, this is really important to me because Canadian artists have a harder time breaking into the states and so to see that our station’s are doing such a good job at supporting and promoting and encouraging our own national talent, to me was a really lovely finding so far. And so I I really liked that. The other thing that I want to look at if not for this study but for another one, is, um, the work that why Y101 here is doing in Ottawa, I don’t know if you’re aware, but every evening we have a girl power hour where they dedicate an hour of airplay to female artists, and there’s a whole campaign that goes with it where you can get a fave five T shirt and so you can get your favorite five female artists on it. I really am just really optimistic that this program is going to play a big role in changing the conversation in Canada, and so I’ve been watching their tweets every night to see; They always give a hint which women are coming up, and so they feature new songs, they play some old classics, so I don’t think it will make it into this study but I certainly am very interested to see how why Y101’s work is gonna factor into changing this conversation in Canada.
Sarah: Because it does take a grassroots effort, it does take people behind those mikes, radio programmers believing in it as well and as much as I sort of roll my eyes at the idea of like, we must allocate this specific time to women, you know, like you want it to be something that’s organic and mixing it’s a really good start, right?
Jada: It can’t be organic until; I was just saying this the other day to a colleague, it can’t be an organic situation until the other half of the population is invited to the table, and so we need these initiatives. I don’t believe in quotas in any which way, whether it’s to live it or to advance, but there needs to be mindful, very concerted effort to introduce artists, and if you see that fans aren’t liking them, just continue to play them.
Sarah: There are some other really bright spots lately. This summer alone, I mean, last week Miranda Lambert, my very favorite, my queen, she’s like my Beyonce. She got 112 ads for her new single It All Comes Out In The Wash. A bop, by the way, completely great song in her first week; What she said was the most of her entire career, and she’s been at this a while, you know, like, do you know contextually like, you know, compared to other guys like her ex Blake Shelton, for example, or Garth Brooks, who are at the top of the charts right now with a song together, you know, is that a lot of ads? 112?
Jada: That’s a lot of adds. And I don’t think this is a conversation that we can truly have based on gender. I don’t really have the data yet, but I’m very intrigued by this because when she said it was basically career milestone, I was taken aback.
Sarah: Really? Okay.
Jada: Because, like you, she’s one of my favorite artists. I named a whole blog after her.
Sarah: The keeper of the flame blog.
Jada: Yes, The keeper of the Flame blog. But I do know that when they say there’s 112 ads, that’s 112 stations have taken up; have added her song to their playlist, and that is significant in and of itself and I think for any artist. I think I showed you a graph of this same week when Thomas Rhett also debuted a song but it didn’t get nearly as much ads, maybe a quarter of the ads, and so I think that this was actually a big moment and it would be a big moment for any artist. I think if you’re able to within the span of a week, jump from not on the chart to number 19 without any week of airplay preceding that, that is a significant feat for any artist.
Sarah: Yeah, and I think with Miranda Lambert’s last album, which was a double album called The Way of These Wings, it was; She had absolutely tried for some singles on that record, even though it was, you know, very much a singer songwriter kind of record following her divorce like she’s kind of been off the charts but still like a mega superstar. It’s interesting to see these women, you know, have these fan bases that are massive, massive, massive and then just not be anywhere on country radio; even someone like a Maren Morris or she’s on the charts but Kacey Musgraves too who had her Grammy win this year, but has really been sort of away from that whole country radio world. I notice that a lot with female artists that there is so much popularity, but it doesn’t translate at all to country radio.
Jada: Yes, their albums sell. They do extraordinarily well at selling albums. Miranda has more often than not had very high album sales, Kasey Musgraves’s album was, mean, It just won Grammys.
Sarah: Ya, Golden Hour. Go buy it.
Jada: It’s a stunning album, and I think what’s happening now is that female artists don’t want to be pigeonholed, whether that’s stylistically or in terms of radio and so they’re just carving their own path. Kasey did all of that with very limited airplay, and Maren, I think Maron’s gonna go number one with Girl any moment now. She also just hasn’t; She has a number one with her Girl album and is a headliner at Boots and Hearts. I think, um, there’s a desire to have radio airplay, but I think that they’re just finding alternate ways to get their music out there and to build their audiences and a lot of that’s through social media and a lot of it is slogging through and doing the radio tour as well. But I think they’re just thinking big and thinking creatively.
Sarah: Speaking of Maren Morris and reactions to this entire sphere, there’s the High Women, which is Maren Morris as part of this super group that has just been formed. Brandi Carlile an Americana artist and Amanda Shires’ also in that vein, and Natalie Hemby, who’s a big songwriter in Nashville, and then Maren Morris, who’s this sparkling sort of pop country superstar, have formed this group that is sort of a riff off of the highway men that Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon were all in. Um, you know, but they are like actively front selling, saying like, this is a statement, this is a movement, we are forming this band because we believe in having these voices, these narratives, these perspectives on country radio. So they’ve been doing country radio tours, which is so interesting to see, you would not normally see those artists, except for maybe more Maren maybe doing that. What do you sort of see in what they’re trying to do?
Jada: I think it’s one of the most important initiatives that I’ve seen in a long time. I would like to back up just for a few steps and say this has been a big year for women supporting women, period and a lot of this can date back to the foundation of Change The Conversation, which is an advocacy group in Nashville but also the song Suffragettes, which is a weekly round where female songwriters play every Monday night for audiences. And so I think what’s happening with those initiatives, and especially today, is that women are not seeing each other as competition, they’re seeing each other as collaborators. And so we had Brandy Carlile’s Girls just want a weekend, Carrie Underwood, Maren Morris Miranda Lambert are going on all women tours, and I think that that all leads into this Redesigning Women song and the High Woman album which is gonna come out in September.
Sarah: That’s their lead single, by the way, the song redesigning women.
Jada: Yeah, it is a stunning song.
Sarah: It’s fun too, you know, song of the summer.
Jada: It’s fun and it’s very traditional country. And so I think all of that has been leading up to reclaiming female narratives, reclaiming space for women, but also just redefining that narrative of competition because it’s not one. If there’s so few spaces for women, you’re not really competing anymore.
Sarah: And if everyone’s carving their own paths and doing their own thing, then it’s really going to give us better music I think too.
Jada: One can hope.
Sarah: Yeah, so are you excited to see this summer? What’s on your country playlist? What’s on repeat for you?
Jada: Definitely Maren Morris’s new album, Girl, and still I’m Listening to Kacey Musgraves like It came out yesterday, and now redesigning women by the High Women is on my playlist. But the artists that I’m really digging right now is Mickey Guyton. I think I never properly got into Mickey Guyton when she was really active on the scene in about 2015 but I started re listening to her EP and I’m just; I don’t know how she’s not a huge star.
Sarah: She’s got the pipes man.
Jada: And her songs are so beautiful, but also Cam. I’m a huge Cam fan. For Cam it hasn’t; When you follow her on Twitter and read what she’s writing it’s not just about men and women, she really, really wants to break every single boundary for all artists. She really wants to see a more inclusive and diverse space, that represents, you know, society because it’s not just about men and women, it’s about artists of color as well and artists of the LGBT community and so that’s what I’m liking about what she’s putting out there in this conversation.
Sarah: All right, Thank you so much for coming on Jada.
Jada: Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah: I’ll be watching your data, Jada.
Sarah: Doctor Jada Watson is the principal investigator of the song data project. That was The Big Story. For more, visit us at thebigstorypodcast.ca, or on Twitter @thebigstoryfpn. Find us on Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. Be sure to leave us a rating in a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Sarah Boesveld, and we’ll catch up again tomorrow.
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