I was originally working on a posting about key challenges that Nashville and the country music industry will face in my point of view during the next months and years. I got stuck in a section about young talent and female country music. It became longer and longer… So that I finally decided to first do a posting on this topic only. Let the Girls play!
Let The Girls Play!
In general, I feel that country music is facing quite a bunch of problems in the next time. Some are maybe unexpected and rather “external topic” like anti-racism – but there are also some topics which are very immanent to the business itself. One of them is that it feels like young talents, especially female ones, have a more and more tough time to make it big in that country music wonderland. Here are my thoughts about it, starting with a posting from a friend of mine.
Lauren Jenkins inspired me
Lauren Jenkins posted this thread on Twitter in February 2020 already. I had discussions about women country music before, but I feel that tweet, which came together with seven tweets additionally replying to it, was hitting the message so well:
I might get in trouble for this thread…. but blame it on my lack of coffee if you want. Last night I played a charity event in Georgia. The opener was a single mom with a gorgeous voice. Just her, her guitar and her original songs…
As it is very bothersome to post multiple Tweet replies in WordPress, here is her full text (slightly edited in formatting so that you can read it more easily:
I might get in trouble for this thread…. but blame it on my lack of coffee if you want. Last night I played a charity event in Georgia. The opener was a single mom with a gorgeous voice. Just her, her guitar and her original songs… Then I got to play for almost an hour and a half. No one seemed to mind having two women on the bill for the evening. Quite the opposite. It was a beautiful event for a good cause. I’m grateful for the attentive audience, the tears, the laughter & connection to my music. This morning I started my drive back to Nashville. My phone was plugged in & I was listening to a playlist I curated. My cord accidentally unplugged which turned on my radio. It was on a country station. I don’t listen to radio, but I thought “hmm, let’s see what they’re playing”. I left it on until it eventually ran out of signal. Guess what! Not a single song by a woman was played. Not one. For over an hour. NONE. I never heard one female voice. Not even on a F’ing commercial. I heard a lot of songs about women… but not from a woman
This conversation is being had a lot… some are tired of it, some don’t get it, some don’t care, some are pissed off. I’m tired of good music not getting the spotlight it deserves. I’m not sure how much the landscape is changing, but clearly it hasn’t changed enough…. Maybe if there was more diversity I’d like the music the radio station was playing more. But as I sit in this gas station listening to static that’s all the station sounded like after awhile. Static. So now I’ll plug my phone back in and listen to good music by good artists. Hey radio, you’ve got a lot to choose from. And you don’t have to choose just one. You COULD play them all: @KalseyKulyk @heathereleven @haileywhitters @caitlynsmith @mirandalambert @KassiAshton @LoriMcKennaMA @mirandalambert @MarenMorris @Cayleehammack @AshleyMcBryde
Or hey, you could play my record. I think everyone that was at that event last night would be stoked to hear one of my song on the radio as they make their morning drive. But I guess for now they’ll just have to stream or play one of my CDs they bought last night. ✌🏽
Lauren will be something like my key example in this posting. Just because she was my key inspiration for this. But, of course, it is not limited to her. By the way, Olivia Lane refers to similar situations in her recent amazing podcast. But what is wrong with the girls?
A Study on Women Country Music
There is a very interesting study as of July 2019, made by Jada E. Watson, for a women country music network. It stated that in 2018, 11.8 per cent of the country song airplay in the US was by female artist. However, the same chart (page 3) states that this quota was about a third in 2000. Its all time low was in 2014, 7.4 per cent. There is an update study, looking at 2018 and the first half of 2019, but telling the same message. Country music does not seem to me anti-female, it really looks like a development over the past twenty years. The study also states that even during the whole period of the study, 2002 to 2018, the tenth-most played male artist, Dierks Bentley, had more spins (3.35 million) than the most popular female at that time, Carrie Underwood (3.2 million spins, see page 5).
But would there be some sort of expected quota for the ladies? The study (maybe) shows some reasons for that. Only 19.6% of the songs overall reported in statistics were recorded by female artists. I would feel that would be the “fair market share”. Unfortunately, the source mostly gives striking, but hard-to-work-with charts instead of tables with figures, but this quota feels to be comparably constant.
The Ladies were Strong in the early 2000’s
On page 6, the report gives a pretty constant rate of 25% of the artists picked by chart count are female, 70 per cent are male (the remaining are mixed groups, which feel to be that immaterial that I typically excluded them there). This also means that the ladies slightly exceeded their market share, based on their presence, in the beginning of the 2000’s, while they are now not reaching their potential. Interestingly the share of songs on the top of the charts between 2002 and 2018 overall, was 11.1 per cent only, the share seems to decrease.
Another View including Female Songwriting
I found another study by the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which is especially interesting as it also compares female success in country music with the US pop music charts. They only examined the Year-End Billboard Hot Country Charts, 2014 to 2018. The figures look comparably worse and the share of female music in the Top 100 charts was (apart from 2018) significantly lower in country than in popular music (represented by the Top 100 Year End Charts). It is a quite interesting analysis, as they also looked at statistics like the average age of a country artist in the charts. Female artists are significantly younger than male ones in this view – the gap of 13 years was quite surprising though. Female songwriting was poorly represented in both categories, country and pop (12% in country, 14% in pop). This shows that there is likely still quite some strong “brother culture” in music. Hard to imagine that females do not like female pop music, do they?
A Recent Tweet by Tenille Arts
In order to illustrate how much pressure and desperation seems to be in the industry, I added a recent tweet by Tenille Arts. Her latest single has been played in a Nashville radio, This only makes her cry. Yes, Tenille is a Canadian citizen, who may have some additional challenges in Tennessee – but on the other hand, she is an artist who is having over 130k followers on Instagram.
Been dreaming of this moment for so long 😭🥺 Got in my car in Nashville on Sunday and #SomebodyLikeThat was on the radio. I proceeded to have a full on breakdown. I can’t believe it. THANK YOU, Country Radio!! 💗💗 pic.twitter.com/oaL3dffjYm
First of all, I have to say that if there is one thing I trust in regarding the United States, it is economic behavior. If people can make a profit, they will take it. If there will be a loss, they will likely try to get rid of it. As a friend, I was very angry when I read that Big Machine dropped Lauren Jenkins after she disclosed that in May 2020. As a country music fan and country music blogger, I first need to assume that they did the decision based on facts. I have never seen an “artist development plan” or however they call it over there.
I guess you have to reach certain targets. Sell enough, have enough follower, Spotify streams. Like I have certain targets at my work. Some of these targets have likely not been met. I cannot understand that (as a fan and as a blogger). Lauren Jenkins is an amazing artist. A great talent, a lovely and unique voice. She is a charming heart – and, if that really counts in the business, she is even a heck of a beauty. We love her in the German country scene. But I have to take it as given.
Music Airplay Is partially a commercial good in the US
But why does the US American country fan does not like to listen (more) of these artists? It is a hen and egg discussion, for sure. And there are factors, in which the US market is very different from Europe. At radio stations, you have extremely short and homogeneous rotations. If you drive through the States and listen to the same radio station, you can easily listen to the same song again after two hours or even after a shorter time period. If you change the channel, you might in fact listen to the same songs again. This makes it extremely hard for any “smaller” artist to get this presence. A lot of talents do not make that step. On top of that, very often airtime for songs is paid. The “traditional” payola system is deemed to be illegal nowadays, but very often, music time slots are traded like commercials (see this Rolling Stone article, for example).
I am sure that there are some forms of record companies influencing airplay just by having “good relationships” to radio stations in Europe as well. It’s a natural part of your business model – and airtime music in Germany gets more and more streamlined (boring!) as well. But maybe, when I look at my thoughts about reaching certain targets as an artist within a certain time, it also feels like if it is too limited talent, failed promotion or bad luck which finally leads to the situation that an artist does not make the breakthrough. I recently heard a US radio interview, though, which clearly stated that US country artists more and more head towards Europe (majorly the UK, so far), as they have a fair chance to receive airtime for a good song.
Women Country Music Can be That Strong and Special
This posting is that long – maybe one of the longest I wrote so far. Thus, I also mix some facts with some thoughts or things which impressed me. So far, I have to say my two favorite country songs 2020 have one thing in common: they are written and performed by ladies. Both are breathtaking, they are authentic as they are autobiographic and share very intimate and painful moments. The songs I am talking about are make you by Lindsay Ell and Lonely Battle by Sylvia Aimee. Lindsay Ell shares with her song that she has been raped twice in her lifetime, Sylvia Aimee illustrates her emotions when she was suffering from eating disorders. These songs hold you, suck you into a story, make you shut up and listen. Become emotional.
They are an amazing contrast to mainstream country songs. I used the two songs’ videos, in addition to an amazing song by Jenn Bostic, as illustrations in this posting.
Women Country in Europe
When you look into the studies I quoted above, you however see that female artists have been much stronger in the early 2000’s. What has happened? From a German perspective, I very often state that I feel Nashville completely lost a momentum. Female country artists always had some role in the German music scene, which is much more an album scene than the US.
Shania Twain’s Come on Over (1997) peaked eighth and Up! (2002) even topped the charts. Sheryl Crow has seven Top 25 albums in Germany so far, Faith Hill peaked with her 2002 album Cry on t e 12th spot. Of course, you could name Taylor Swift as well, who was also popular here with her first albums. On the other hand, there is one thing Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Eric Church and Dierks Bentley have in common until today: they never even made it to the (100 entries weekly) German album charts, only Urban has some low single charts rankings. Even Johnny Cash made it to the German album Top 10 for the first time just after his death (source for all these chart entries: wikipedia).
major sold-out Women Country Shows in Europe
The UK loves Cam, Carrie Underwood sells out their biggest indoor arenas. In 2018, I saw Shania Twain in the quite crowded (not sold out) five-digit capacity LANXESSarena in Cologne. I am not sure why country music never fully made use of this momentum. Nowadays, it feels to be hard to revive it again. Even if the US country music market is “too male” (for whatever reason), why not growing female artists on the other side of the Atlantic?
I feel that Nashville is wasting a lot of talent and market potential. Maybe apart from super-artists like Keith Urban, the ladies could especially play an important role in developing the genre in overseas. Give this part of the music a chance, give them a share of the business. There are fans for it. There are people who identify with the artists and their music. Why did the ladies lose the market share they had. I unfortunately feel that they really got worse – there were just very few big names and small names who kept making it big in the later part of the first decade of the 2000’s.
Now I feel, that there are a lot of interesting new female artists (and some of the established ones are still there…). Let the girls play – and especially: let them play their music. The music which comes from their heart, which tell their true and honest stories. Don’t try to streamline them. Three chords and the truth – no matter if you are male of female, old or young, Caucasian or African-American.