Country Radio’s Gender Imbalance: Is It Due To Sales?

Country radio’s gender imbalance remains a vexing topic that seems to defy explanation. A few months ago, we took a look at the question of whether the imbalance was simply the byproduct of labels promoting more male talent than female talent, and found that, when it came to new talent, females comprised 40% of new acts brought to country radio by Music Row’s biggest labels since 2008, but only 28% of those scoring their 1st t20 hit and 0% of those scoring their 2nd t20 hit in that timeframe. In other words, female representation among new acts breaking through has been disproportionately low even after you consider the number of females being promoted versus the number of males.

So after seeing just 1 bulleted female in the current country airplay t20, it’s time to consider another explanation. In an excellent interview with The Nashville Scene, the most acclaimed new artist in The Scene’s Critics Poll, Angaleena Presley (whose American Middle Class is an excellent collection of frank, well-written character sketches about imperfect people and what they do to cope with everyday struggles), discussed male domination on country radio:

If I had to venture a guess, in country music right now the men have a multimillion-dollar formula, so why not follow it? Even Miranda and Carrie Underwood don’t sell as much as the men do.

This is a commonly cited explanation, but it’s one that’s just not true. Let’s look at album sales.

Album Sales
Underwood’s most recent studio album Blown Away has sold 1.7 million copies since its May 2012 release with 4 #1 singles, 2 of them Mediabase-only #1s, 2 of them double platinum, 1 of them platinum, and 1 of them gold. That’s comparable to the 1.7 million copies sold by top tier male seller Jason Aldean’s October 2012 release Night Train (with 5 singles, 3 of them platinum, 2 of them gold, 4 of them #1 singles). Sure, Luke Bryan’s most recent full studio release has outsold them both, as did the Florida-Georgia Line debut album (albeit with the benefit of a re-release). But the point is, Carrie Underwood is hanging with the top selling men just fine (with fewer singles released per album), and even outselling males with more airplay like Blake Shelton (March 2013’s Based On A True Story sold 1.4 million copies off 5 #1 singles, 1 of them double platinum, 2 of them platinum, and 2 of them gold).

Speaking of Blake Shelton, he’s in the next tier of sellers. So is his wife Miranda Lambert, whose Platinum, a 6/3/2014 release, sold 179k copies in its 1st week of release, while Blake Shelton’s latest album Bringing Back The Sunshine (released 9/30/2014) sold 101k in its 1st week of release. Platinum has sold 614k to date on the back of a Mediabase #1 gold single (t3 at Billboard) and a t10 peaking, platinum-certified duet single, while Bringing Back The Sunshine has sold 299k on the back of a #1 gold single and a bulleted t10 duet single. Not a totally fair comparison because Platinum has been out nearly  4 months longer, but consider this: Blake’s album currently has a t10 single (as mentioned) and sold 4k last week, Miranda’s album currently has a single just inside the t40 and sold 3.7k copies last week. At that pace, Blake’s album would catch Miranda’s in sales in about 20 years.

On the less established front, Kacey Musgraves has scored a gold debut album (actual scans are also around 500k) with March 2013’s Same Trailer, Different Park despite just 1 t10 hit and 3 subsequent singles that did not make the t20. Her album sales feat is one that has eluded new male acts with far more country radio support, including Cole Swindell, whose debut album (released in February 2014) has sold 315k on the back of 2 #1 singles and another bulleted t20 hit, Brett Eldredge, whose debut album (release in August 2013) has sold 151k on the back of 2 #1 hits and another bulleted t15 hit, Thomas Rhett, whose debut album (released October 2013) has sold 224k on the back of 2 #1 hits and another bulleted t10 hit, and Frankie Ballard, whose debut album (released February 2014) has sold 69k on the back of 2 #1 hits. While all of the guys have scored at least gold downloads with their hit singles (platinum in the case of Swindell’s “Chillin It” and Rhett’s “It Goes Like This”), it should be noted that Kacey Musgraves’s only t10 hit “Merry Go Round” went platinum, while “Follow Your Arrow,” a song that did not make the t40 at country radio, also went gold.

So this idea that country radio leans so steeply male because the men have hit on a formula that sells better doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. In fact, with a number of women outperforming men on a sales per spin basis, it looks more and more like country radio has deliberately chosen an audience that favors male voices, one that makes it more difficult for women at every level of career development to achieve the same level of airplay penetration as male counterparts at the same level of career development. Two recent chart developments continue to illustrate what women are up against at country radio, even those who have music that sells better than the music of their male counterparts.

Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water” – Airplay Versus Sales & Streams

Yesterday, Billboard released an article noting that Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water” is #1 on the hybrid Hot Country Songs chart for the 7th week.

[Aside: Feel free to ignore the historical significance Billboard tries to ascribe to this – Billboard is going to say this is Carrie’s biggest HCS hit ever, topping “Jesus Take The Wheel”‘s 6 week run, but if Billboard applied the same methodology in 2006-2007 that it does today, Carrie’s “Before He Cheats” would have been a 40 week HCS #1.]

The hybrid chart shows a female with the marketplace numbers to top the guys in a time when the airplay chart is showing the same male dominance as ever. Chart watchers have noticed over the past couple months that Carrie Underwood’s “Something In The Water,” despite getting off to a fast start at country radio, seemed to have the reins applied as it was about to make the t10 in late October/early November 2014, in what appeared to be an effort to let older singles by her Arista Nashville labelmate Brad Paisley and fellow Sony Nashville artist Kenny Chesney pass on the airplay charts (they did, and have since hit #1). Since then, a slightly older Eric Church single “Talladega” has caught fire and passed on the airplay charts (but not the sales charts), while a younger single by Luke Bryan has suddenly rocketed up and passed on the Billboard airplay charts.

This has left “Something In The Water” in the position of potentially missing a country airplay #1 despite its all-encompassing popularity, while singles with less popular resonance from Carrie’s male counterparts have sailed to airplay #1s. To illustrate the disparity, check out this table comparing not only download sales, but also album sales, as well as streams from VEVO, Youtube, and Spotify and official video plays (all sales are current as of the week ending 1/18/2015 unless otherwise noted, and all streaming counts are current as of 1/22/2015).

How Carrie Underwood's Something In The Water Stacks Up Numerically Against Current Male Singles-Final
Sources for sales data: Roughstock’s 1/21/15 single sales update, Roughstock’s 1/21/15 album sales update, Roughstock’s 1/16/15 album sales update, and girlygirl.

As the table shows, “Something In The Water” has outsold its airplay competition by a wide margin (40.6% more than the next best selling recent #1 shown above), and it has attracted considerably more streaming interest too. Now, it’s true that “Something In The Water” is the lead single from a greatest hits album, so those interested in it might have been pushed to download the single more than they would have a non-lead single from a regular album. But that doesn’t explain its superior streaming performance. And considering we live in an era where people can cherry pick their favorite songs for customized hits albums, the fact that Carrie’s Greatest Hits: Decade #1 album has, in less than 6 weeks since its release, already outsold a couple of full studio albums from superstar male counterparts released 3-4 months before and promoted by 2-3 #1 singles each, speaks to the way “Something In The Water” has connected with her large fanbase.

Meanwhile, a Kenny Chesney single that has sold a shockingly low 90k copies total was gifted with a smooth 17 week run to #1 on both airplay charts. So was a Brad Paisley single with less than half the sales of “Something In The Water” from an album whose sales Carrie’s Greatest Hits: Decade #1 left in the dust weeks ago. This goes to illustrate that a female country superstar can establish marketplace appeal that significantly exceeds that of her male counterparts, but country radio has a narrower and skewed target that continues to favor male singles.

RaeLynn’s “God Made Girls” – Airplay Versus Sales

Having looked at circumstances at the very top of the charts, let’s move to the middle of the charts and back into debut artist territory. Consider RaeLynn, whose debut single “God Made Girls,” a light-hearted but polarizing single about the female’s place in the world that has come under a lot of criticism from those who believe it reinforces outdated & regressive gender stereotypes. In mid-October 2014, RaeLynn became the 1st female country act to get the benefit of Clear Channel IHeartRadio’s On The Verge fast-tracking, which enabled “God Made Girls” to make the airplay t20 after it spent its 1st 16 weeks out treading water in the mid-30s.

During that time, “God Made Girls” has displayed considerable strength on the sales charts, achieving t10 or near t10 placements on the weekly country digital sales chart for the past 7 weeks for a current total of 412k downloads sold (via Roughstock). “God Made Girls” has also achieved Spotify streams numbering 4,884,546 and VEVO video views totaling 7,656,452. All this combined to enable “God Made Girls” to peak at #7 on the hybrid Billboard Hot Country Songs chart.

But this past week, after treading water for a couple months, “God Made Girls” went recurrent on the Billboard Country Airplay charts after a #18 peak – the lowest peak yet for a country single supported by On The Verge (the four previous picks all made the t10, with two of them reaching #1).* “God Made Girls” remains on the Mediabase charts after achieving a new peak of #16, but has lost its bullet there too. Contrast that with the fortunes of the On The Verge pick that directly preceded “God Made Girls”: Chase Bryant’s “Take It On Back.” Bryant’s single (which is also his debut) has failed to make the t30 of the country digital sales chart at any point during its chart run (2/5/2015 edit: “Take It On Back” has sold 111k total through the week ending 2/01/15), while accumulating Spotify streams of 1,467,689 and VEVO video views totaling 330,840, well below “God Made Girls”‘s totals in the same categories. But “Take It On Back” sits bulleted at #13 Billboard, #10 Mediabase in its 27th week.

* Note: Billboard resurrected “God Made Girls” for a week, but it went recurrent again after a #16 peak to match its #16 Mediabase peak.

To be fair, another On The Verge beneficiary, Sam Hunt’s “Leave The Night On” has fared far better than both (with 949k downloads sold to date along with 11,762,427 official VEVO video views and a whopping 28,877,566 Spotify streams to go along with its #1 airplay peak). Still, whatever one thinks of the “God Made Girls”‘s message, it has clearly established marketplace appeal that is running ahead of its airplay exposure, and that disparity again illustrates that country radio’s target runs narrower than overall marketplace appeal.

Why Country Radio Doesn’t Follow The Marketplace
It might seem strange to try to illustrate how the tilted the country radio landscape is against women through the example of a female who over the past 9+ years has seen every solo single make the airplay t2 and the example of a solo female who was fasttracked into the t20 by the biggest radio conglomerate. But the intent here is to address a specific point: the idea that country radio is merely playing what sells, and that males have figured out a formula that sells better. In fact, we have two examples of female-led songs outperforming male counterparts with comparable exposure in the marketplace, but not receiving radio support that fully reflects that marketplace strength.

It’s the disparity between their sales/streaming performances and their airplay that shows country radio’s deliberate catering to an audience that favors male dominance instead of equal acceptance of fans who prefer female voices. This becomes even more evident in light of comparatively weak-selling male acts who see smooth & repeated runs to #1.

So why is country radio’s target so skewed? A recent viral mash-up that exposed both the lyrical and musical similarities between 6 recent t5 country hits (Blake Shelton’s “Sure Be Cool If You Did,” Luke Bryan’s “Drunk On You,” Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It,” Parmalee’s “Close Your Eyes,” “This Is How We Roll” by Florida Georgia Line with Luke Bryan, and “Ready, Set, Roll” by Chase Rice) points to the answer:

To return to the Angaleena Presley quote that was the springboard for this discussion, the mash up shows that she is right that there is a formula that has worked better for males – but it’s a formula that works for them at radio more than in the marketplace. Why? Because commercial radio is a place where sameness to known hits makes singles safer and therefore more likely picks for playlists. Looking back at the examples mentioned above, the performances of Brad Paisley’s “Perfect Storm” and Kenny Chesney’s “‘Til It’s Gone” reflect that they tread nearly identical ground (musically and lyrically) to previous hits like Paisley’s “She’s Everything” and Chesney’s “Live A Little”/”Don’t Blink”/”Never Wanted Nothin’ More.” In other words, the recent singles were safe radio hits that didn’t move the needle among either superstar’s fanbase because both had already released similar (and more effective) material. Meanwhile, the performance of the Chase Bryant single demonstrates the potential pitfalls for a new act relying on overly familiar sounds and tropes to penetrate country radio.

As also noted in this Grady Smith Guardian column, many male acts enjoying considerable success at radio have failed to translate that into strong album sales. That translation issue shows that reliance on formulaic material is a double-edged sword – it proves an advantage in scoring radio hits but a disadvantage in standing out and creating fan investment in individual acts.

The marketplace/airplay space disparity for the females cited here shows the opposite at play. “Something In The Water,” for example, is thematically and musically different from anything that has been on country radio in years, and sonically different from anything Underwood has recorded in the past. The female country acts cited have packed a stronger marketplace punch per radio spin, and they have done so through material that showcases something distinctive, something that identifies them immediately, to even the casual listener.

2015 has begun with the New Year’s resolutions that you might expect at country radio, with plenty of programmers predicting a return to more balanced, less party-overloaded playlists and commitment to more female breakthroughs on the format. All this is accompanied by discussion of a 6 month downturn in country radio’s ratings, admissions that the format hit the oversaturation point with “bro country” last year, concerns about an audience demographic in flux and worries that the last few years have been spent focusing too much on chasing a 18-34 demo that has started to move on.

Amid all this, singer/songwriter/former American Idol top-48 contestant Mickey Guyton scored a huge 1st week of adds for her impassioned country/soul empowerment-after-breakup anthem “Better Than You Left Me,” which picked up 79 out of 149 Mediabase stations after a long radio tour and well-planned build up. An identifiably country song (with steel guitar – unusual in the current environment, as acknowledged by Brad Paisley) that speaks to women from a great new voice would appear to be just the thing to help country radio rebalance itself & reconnect with its adult female core audience after years of favoring the bros. So how much those 1st week adds translate into real, sustained airplay (and real sales, for that matter), and a broader effort to reward female marketplace impact with equivalent radio exposure will be something to watch. As the examples cited above show, there is work to do.

About Deb B 432 Articles
Also known as Windmills, I cover country music news and live televised country events, in addition to recapping ABC's 'Nashville.' Additionally, I occasionally do long-form chart analysis that has been cited by Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, The Guardian, The New Republic, NPR, and more.