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Country Music Controversy?

How a Twitter joke uncovered an “equal play” problem in America’s oldest music genre

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“I turned on the 105.1 country station in L.A. just now, and they were playing the new song by Gabby Barrett, and then, without any pause or interruption at all, they went into a Kelsea Ballerini song. Can’t they get fined for that?”

Chris Willman, a music writer for Variety, who tweeted this as a joke about what he says is "the unspoken country radio rule about not letting one female singer’s voice succeed another."
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“We cannot play two females back to back. Not even Lady Antebellum or Little Big Town against another female. I applaud their courage.”

Twitter account for 98 KCQ, a radio station in Michigan, responding to Willman's tweet. The parent company of the station had to issue a public denial that such a rule existed.
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What Happened?

  • Last Week: The twitter storm over the decades-old industry “policy” prompted country stars like Kacey Musgrave & Kelsea Ballerini to highlight the challenges of female artists breaking into country radio, or even being played at all.
  • This Week: CMT (Country Music Television) says it will now give male & female artists equal airtime. Other radio stations have promised “equal play.”
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What We Know:

  • Then: The “policy” employed by country music stations of not playing songs by female artists consecutively dates back to the 1960s. Why? One reason given: to spread them out because there were so few.
  • Now: Songs by male country artists outnumber women by 9.7 to 1. 16% of the top 500 country songs from 2014-2018 were by females, according to another 2019 study.
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“Based on radio airplay, audiences would presume that there are only a handful of women participating in the genre… But just like radio, where there are only a limited number of spots on a station playlist for female artists, there are only a limited number of spots for female artists on label and publishing rosters.”

University of Ottawa researcher Jada Watson, who studies gender representation in country music.
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Why It Matters:

It ain’t just country

  • Forbes top 5 earning musicians for 2019: all men except #1 (Taylor Swift).
  • Billboard top 5 artists for 2019: all men except #2 (Ariana Grande).
  • According to research from USC, less than a quarter of the 600 most popular songs from 2012 to 2017 were by females, and women made up just 12% of songwriters and 2% of producers.
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Do Audiences Simply Like Male Singers More?

“…if you’re blaming your audience for their own current biases, isn’t that a little like a parent blaming a high school kid for a bad diet after raising them on one food group their entire lives?”

Chris Willman
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BIG PICTURE: Numbers are one thing, but nominations are another. 3 of the 5 nominees for Best Country Album for Sunday's Grammy Awards are women (Reba McEntire, Pistol Annies, and Tanya Tucker). 5 of the 8 nominees for Album of the Year are females (Lizzo, Ariana Grande, Lana Del Ray, H.E.R & Billie Eilish).

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