Women & Country Music: Music Row Works To “Change The Conversation”

Over the past year, we have had quite a few discussions here about country radio’s gender imbalance. Those discussions have been going on at the industry level, too. For a year, three Music Row leaders, Leslie Fram (Senior VP Music Strategy at CMT), Tracy Gershon (artist manager & VP A&R at Rounder Records), and Beverly Keel (chair of Middle Tennessee State University’s music department and Tennessean columnist) have been building an initiative to translate discussions into meaningful action. That initiative, Change The Conversation, has grown into a monthly meeting that attracts artists, songwriters, radio personnel, publishers, artist managers, label representatives, agents and more. Last week, I had the privilege of giving 1 of 2 research presentations at Change The Conversation’s June meeting, which CTC secret weapon Eileen Tilson had a strong hand in putting together. What follows here is a recap of the meeting, which focused on country radio and possible approaches to improving female representation there.

Research Presentation – Jay Frank
As the founder of DigSin, a new model music company, author of Futurehit.DNA, and a veteran of CMT (where he was SVP Music Strategy) and Yahoo! (where he was a digital music executive), Jay Frank has a broader perspective on how an artist can build an audience. He began his presentation on country radio and female artists with a humorous note of caution: while his data would certainly show a decline in female presence at country radio over the past 10 years, it might also show a decline in the presence of artists with first names beginning with the letters N-Z. In other words, to properly diagnose the malaise, we might need to look beyond the gender issue to figure out what was really going on at country radio.

Focusing on the top 300 annual currents/recurrents/gold titles and counting both solo female vocalists and groups with a female vocalist, Frank found that the female presence has been flat over the past decade at around 20-21% but that the number of plays allocated to female titles had slid more steeply recently. He suggested that Taylor Swift’s exit to pop may have contributed somewhat to this, because her catalog likely took a hit in the recurrent category.

It may come as somewhat of a surprise to find that from 2006 to 2014, the absolute number of spins to the top songs with female vocals actually increased by 14%. However, Frank pointed out that the overall number of spins allocated to the top songs had increased by 50% in the time frame, so yes, female representation was in fact lagging. He later acknowledged that panel size was part of the reason for the increases in the number of spins allocated to the top songs, but brought up another important issue that has contributed in a major way to the tightening of country radio playlists: in the past few years, country radio has been devoting more spins to its “power” category, that is, its top songs. With more spins to the familiar, already established hits, the charts have slowed down, and that has meant that more patience is required from both labels and from radio to develop hits. Not only patience, but a perhaps unrealistic expectation of tenacity – Frank noted that week 1 radio stations believers in a female single can’t always stick around for week 40, when the song is finally clicking on more of the country radio panel. An unintended consequence of this, Frank argued, is a greater advantage to male songs that move faster up the charts anyway.

Additionally, Frank brought up the issue of country radio conglomerates. With increasingly centralized decision-making when it comes to song adds, Frank suggested that the methodology that some groups use to add songs unintentionally disadvantage females. He singled out groups that might wait until a single is already t20 on the national charts before finally getting on board – with new females unlikely to hit that milestone without the support of a critical mass of stations, a reactive policy like this would make their uphill climb even steeper.

Subsequently, Frank turned to an issue that would generate the most discussion that evening: songwriters. WTF, he asked? Translation: “Where’s The Females?” He asserted that female artists need female singer/songwriters, and noted this scary statistic:

(The songwriter in question is Heather Morgan, who cowrote Brett Eldredge’s “Beat Of The Music.”)

Frank illustrated the long history of female songwriters supporting female artists with a slide listing some of the highest impacting female songs in country music history that had at least one female songwriter. It just so happened that a songwriter responsible for one of those hits, the great Matraca Berg, was in the room. She pointed out that publishers were telling female songwriters to write for male acts – a matter of playing the odds because there simply aren’t that many female country acts to write for, and the male acts in town are more likely to get radio support, comments affirmed by Jessi Alexander and Nicolle Galyon in this Billboard investigation into what’s going on with women and country radio.

Discussion turned to how Music Row publishers have fewer (and maybe just one) slot for female writers these days, again just playing the odds, and how the town is developing fewer female songwriters and generating fewer female-geared songs as a result. The room heard from veteran publisher Pat Higdon, who among his many industry accomplishments has a 20+ year working partnership with Matraca Berg, who affirmed his commitment to developing great female songwriting talent (he is now working with rising talent Kat Higgins) and suggested that we are on the cusp of a more fruitful period. Music executive Todd Cassetty pointed out that he’s watched a number of female singer/songwriters featured on his weekly Song Suffragettes showcase (which has been growing in stature and recently celebrated its one year anniversary) get signed to publishing deals, and touted the value of the collaborative environment.

Jay Frank brought up another interesting statistic on this point: the fact that the average number of writers on hit songs has increased by 40% in 10 years. Indeed, it’s unusual to see less than 3 songwriters per hit country song these days. Frank suggested that the hit male writers of recent years have created a “chain” of collaboration that’s helped them to increase their odds of landing cuts & singles, and acknowledged that the competitive environment with fewer slots for female songwriters has been getting in the way of female songwriters doing the same thing. But the room seemed to agree that the momentum for a change in the tide is there. In the meantime, Frank reminded the audience of the availability of alternate revenue streams and paths, citing the European success of his artist Jenn Bostic, who launched her career on the back of a song called “Jealous Of The Angels.” Subsequently, singer/songwriter Ella Mae Bowen (who recently landed a Reba cut) asked an interesting question about the wisdom of writing for radio/the reality of country music today versus writing by inspiration. Frank replied to much agreement, that the songs that really cut through – the songs like “Girl Crush” – are the songs nobody asked for.

Research Presentation – My Turn
Preceding Jay Frank’s presentation, I had the chance to deliver some data on women and country radio. If this section seems longer than its predecessor, it’s because I violated the cardinal rule about opening acts not playing too long (oops) and also because I have access to my own slides & presentation prep (in contrast to feverishly taken notes on Jay Frank’s presentation).

My focus was on four questions:

  1. How serious is the gender imbalance at country radio, really? Is it that much worse than it used to be?
  2. What is “research” and how is it being used against playing females at country radio?
  3. Does the research really say that female listeners don’t want to hear female artists?
  4. How can we use research to advance the cause of women at country radio?

Country Radio’s Gender Imbalance In Historical Context

There have been a few studies lately with statistics that put the overall presence of female acts at country radio over the past 20-25 years somewhere in the 20-25% range. I took a slightly different cut at the same issue in trying to get a sense for the pace at which country radio’s launched new generations of core country acts. Building off last year’s study on how the big labels had done when bringing new solo male and new solo female acts to country radio from 2008 to the present, I looked at the solo males and solo females brought by big resource labels to country since 1992, and what the success rates were in achieving artists’ 1st and 2nd t20 hits.

Country Radio Success Rates for New Solo Women and New Solo Men, 1992-2015

Findings summarized:

  • From 1992-1999 (the period in which we were introduced to Faith, Shania, Martina, Lee Ann Womack, LeAnn Rimes, and more), females represented 37% of the new solo acts being brought to country radio by big labels, 37% of the new solo acts scoring their 1st t20 hit, and 38% of the new solo acts scoring their 2nd t20 hit. In other words, once you controlled for the number of solo acts being brought to country radio, women were holding their own compared to the men, and seeing equal success rates.
  • From 2000-2007 (the period that began with Jamie O’Neal scoring multiple #1 hits and also introduced us to Carrie, Taylor, and Miranda), females represented 41% of the new solo acts being brought to country radio by big labels, 35% of the new solo acts scoring their 1st t20 hit, and 29% of the new solo acts scoring at least 2 t20 hits. Solo women were starting to fall behind solo men during this time frame, though women who got their 1st solo t20 hit still had a greater than 50% chance of scoring another t20 hit.
  • From 2008 to 2015, females represented 38% of the new solo acts being brought to country radio by the big labels, but only 26% of the new solo acts scoring their 1st t20 hit, and 0% of the new solo acts scoring at least 2 t20 hits.

What we see is that the proportion of solo females being brought to country radio remained pretty steady over the three 8 year blocks, but the success rates of solo females has declined significantly. Meanwhile, success rates for men in scoring initial radio success have climbed, while the success rates for solo men in consolidating initial radio success have remained considerably higher than success rates for those solo females who have scored an initial hit.

The “Research” Barrier to Female Representation at Country Radio – What Is “Research”?
Having established that the current era at country radio has seen disproportionately low in female representation, it was time to consider a major barrier per some programmers & consultants: “research,” and how it represents listener demand.

As previously noted, “research” is not a matter of herding people into a room and asking them if they would rather hear male songs or female songs. Rather, the most commonly cited research that suggests listener preference for male acts is based on data from PPMs. What are PPMs? Portable People Meters are a Nielsen (formerly Arbitron) tool – pager-sized devices that panelists carry with them everywhere that detects inaudible codes embedded in radio station broadcasts (unique to each station) and log information about whatever radio station broadcast a person happens to be exposed to wherever he or she is. That covers active choices like listening to a radio station in a car and passive choices like walking into a deli where a local radio station happens to be playing. There’s a selection of Nielsen/Arbitron panelists in each of the 48 largest markets, while the rest of the markets continue to use the “diary” method, where people manually log what they’ve been listening to all week. Based on the data from these PPMs and diaries, Nielsen/Arbitron calculate monthly ratings for each station in those markets, and they also track things like tune-in and tune-out (which can be traced back to station logs and connected to specific songs).

Both the PPM and diary methods have their flaws. Relying on personal reporting means you’re dealing with imperfect memories and possibly people misrepresenting what they’ve listened to. PPM, on the other hand, has come under criticism for a few reasons: technical deficiencies in detecting station codes, sample bias in terms of who has the meters, and sample size. Here are some concerns about PPM expressed from within country radio earlier this year (in the 2/2/2015 Country Aircheck):

“Don’t get me started on the sample size here in Las Vegas. One meter in the Country life group is the difference between hero and zero. There are about 1,000 meters for more than 45 radio stations. The panelists also are told that the meters are to monitor their media usage; they have no idea it’s for radio. So how many of those 1000 panelists are actually heavy radio users?” – JoJo Turnbeaugh, PD, KWNR Las Vegas

With the sample size and decreasing PUMM [People Using Measured Media], it has become a game of inches. That’s where one or two meters makes all the difference. –Fritz Moser, PD, WLHK Indianapolis

I pulled these quotes not to argue that PPM data are meaningless, because we have to accept the fact that country radio (and consultants) make decisions based on those numbers. But having a conversation about female representation with radio means understanding what programmers base their decisions on, and further, understanding the limitations of what PPM results can tell radio. Highlighting where PPM may be under-representing listener demand for female acts can help illustrate the costs to country radio of its current gender imbalance, and also why country radio can benefit from greater female representation.

”Research” Illustrated
In his famously inflammatory remarks recommending a 13% or 15% cap for women on country radio playlists, consultant Keith Hill argued that higher levels of female representation cause tune out, and that because it’s women who spend more time listening to radio, it must be women who prefer to hear male acts.

There are a few ways to go after this argument. The 1st revolves another common criticism of PPM measurements, one recently affirmed by SiriusXM Senior Director, Country Music Programming John Marks– that they inevitably show a prejudice against the unfamiliar and the new. We all know that when females are a more infrequent presence on country radio, they will inherently be less familiar and more likely to cause tuneout.

But to illustrate the methodology of PPM-based research as well as its limitations and the importance of supplementary listener feedback, let’s take a look at this Coleman Insights study published in 2007, tracking listening at Houston’s KILT from May to November 2006 using PPM measurements. The study found that, on average, new songs from new male acts had a flat impact on listening (with average listenership 2 minutes into a new song from a new males exceeding average listenership 1 minute before the song started by 0.3%) while on average, new songs from new female acts caused average listenership 2 minutes into a song to decline by 1.2% compared to average listenership 1 minute before the song started). This study also made the assumption that because female listenership to country radio is higher, females must be responsible for the listening trends. At no point, though, did the study actually say or show that it was female PPMs going down with plays of new songs from new female acts.

Moreover, as the study itself acknowledged, they were using a relatively small sample of songs, and songs from artists like Carrie Underwood (who was exploding at the time) were not included. At least as important was this recommendation from the study itself:

More tools needed than just PPM to measure what to play and how often to play it. The research indicates that it takes a long time for individual songs to fully reveal themselves. There are songs that test poorly in the first few weeks, but that turn out to be among the best in a year. Josh Turners’ “Would You Go with Me” is a perfect case in point. It was a turn-off to the KILT audience for about 10 weeks before it turned around and showed positive audience growth. It became the 13th most played song in the country by the end of 2006. If programmers around the U.S. had results similar to this study for Josh Turner’s song, the song may never have made it past week five or six. Stations need to know what their listeners want in the macro, not just which songs they are responding to behaviorally right now. Programmers need to know which songs listeners like that will have a positive impact on their brand. These data, along with PPM data, will be needed to know how to program stations in the future. If Josh Turner’s song was highly popular with the target at the same time it was getting a negative PPM response, it might have been a song worth sticking with all the way to 13th most played song nationally.

In a similar vein, KRTY San Jose PD Julie Stevens had this pointed response in the 6/1/2015 Country Aircheck Weekly to Hill’s recommendation of a 13-15% cap on females on radio playlists:

If Kelsea Ballerini showed up on your desk and you’ve already got Miranda Lambert, Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town and all these female leads, would you say, “No I’m not listening to that; I’ve got my 15%”? I’m going to assume he would judge the song based on the song and not give a rats rear-end [who] is singing it. If the song works, I don’t care if you have six eyes and are a dog. This is why people rail against consultants, because they think they can add it all up and go, ‘Yep. 15/85%. That’s it.’ And you can’t do that.”

Song-By-Song Research & Gendered Preference
In the interest of song-by-song research, I presented some of the data from this post entitled Country Radio & The Anti-Female Female Myth, which illustrates that, contrary to the common claim that country radio’s female listeners don’t want to hear female artists, country radio’s female listeners have actually been out ahead in their support on female-led singles. In fact, it is low positives and especially high negatives from male listeners that have created a drag on female-led singles. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of one of 2015’s biggest hits, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”

To illustrate the impact of male listeners on “Girl Crush”’s airplay progress, I presented three charts tracking listener response to “Girl Crush” by gender and age as measured by Critical Mass Media. The three charts tracked negative response, positive response, and pop score (which reflects a weighted score based on a combination of positive response, strong positive response (also known as passion), negative response, burnout, and familiarity) among 4 demographics: Males aged 25-34, Females aged 25-34, Males aged 35-44, and Females aged 35-44. The data begins on 3/6/2015, “Girl Crush”’s 10th week on the Mediabase chart (and its 1st week registering on the CMM survey), and ends on 6/26/2015, “Girl Crush”‘s 26th week on the Mediabase chart:


Little Big Town-Girl Crush Callout CMM-Negative Response By Gender
Little Big Town-Girl Crush Callout CMM-Positive Response By GenderLittle Big Town-Girl Crush Callout CMM-Pop Score By Gender

Of note: “Girl Crush” actually lost its 7 day spin bullet on the rolling Mediabase chart on 3/25/2015 while sitting outside the t30 on the national country airplay charts, and its slow period coincided with the callout lows among male listeners illustrated in the above tables – low positives and high negatives. Females were quite supportive of the song in early testing, the male 35-44 demographic seemed to really come around on the song in late April, and the male 25-34 demo, while currently supportive of the song, has been the laggard demo throughout. The CMM results mirror the Callout America feedback reported here, which show the female 18-34 demo in particular way out ahead in its support of the song.

The main lesson of “Girl Crush”’s run mirrors the one from the Coleman Insights study cited earlier: relying on PPM exclusively (or not supporting a song because of high negatives/tuneout) would have killed Josh Turner’s “Would You Go With Me” early, before it had the chance to become 2006’s 13th most played song. Similarly, “Girl Crush” needed time to develop – male listeners came around on the song eventually, while female listeners sustained the song while it was generating strong sales but treading water outside of the t30.

Moving Forward – A Demographic Opening
Why is it that high male negatives would be so consequential in a song’s chart run when country radio’s listenership leans slightly female? This R. J. Curtis column, where he joined with Nielsen’s Jon Miller for a demo-based breakdown of country radio’s growth over the past 3 years, may provide an answer. Curtis and Miller found that the strongest growth cell for country radio from April 2012 to April 2015 was males 18-34, with the percentage of radio-listening males 18-34 turning into country radio growing a full share from 7.5 to 8.5. This confirms previous reports from songwriters Craig Wiseman and Shane Minor about the demographic targets of their bro country songs.

While we shouldn’t forget those earlier notes about PPM’s limitations, radio’s current PPM-based data also illustrate an opening to argue for greater gender balance. Country radio’s ratings are down nationally year to year, which suggests that bro country’s time as the primary driver of country radio ratings growth is winding down, and that it’s time to find a new driver. Also of note: Curtis & Miller found that country radio’s female 18-34 share dropped precipitously from a 10.8 to a 9.4 from April 2014 to April 2015, a timeframe that has coincided with an outburst of female smashes at pop radio (including Ariana Grande, Jessie J., Nicki Minaj, and of course Taylor Swift and Meghan Trainor). This is the same demographic that showed especially strong early support for “Girl Crush,” that has shown the strongest levels of support for breakthrough singles like Kacey Musgraves’s t10 hit “Merry Go Round” and Kelsea Ballerini’s recent #1 hit “Love Me Like You Mean It,” and part of the demographic that registered especially high passion for Carrie Underwood’s recent #1 “Little Toy Guns.” Of course this demographic is also plenty supportive of the Luke Bryans and Sam Hunts of the world, too, but if country radio is interested in winning back some of its lost audience among females 18-34, song-by-song callout data suggests stronger female representation on playlists could help.

In the absence of callout (since so many female singles haven’t been receiving enough airplay to test in the 1st place), you have people like syndicated DJ Bobby Bones throwing his support behind Cam’s “Burning House” (a lovely, mournful ballad that will be the newest country beneficiary of On The Verge fasttracking) because it shot up into the Itunes Country t10 after a few spins on his show. While sales don’t always track perfectly with radio appeal, they do generally correlate with the passion a song is likely to generates in callout surveys, and strong early passion can be a sign of a song worth supporting with spins even if it doesn’t scan as an obvious hit based on early PPM-based metrics.

Concluding Thoughts

In light of current PPM-based data, today’s forward-thinking programmer will look to find the songs that will create & drive a new growth cycle for country radio. This is a time for risks, a time to support something outside the formulas that have carried country radio for the past few years – a time to find the hit songs that, as Jay Frank mentioned, “nobody asked for.” This gives advocates for greater female representation at country radio an opportunity and potentially, common cause with programmers. So now it’s a question of will and strategy. If there was one thing clear from this Change The Conversation meeting, it’s that the country music industry is full of people across all sectors – publishers, media and label execs, artists, agents, journalists, artist managers, radio reps, and more – who are determined to create more space for the female voices of country to be heard, and it’s a matter of time before they make that happen.

You can follow Change The Conversation’s efforts at @changetheconvo on Twitter, and like Change The Conversation’s Facebook page here.

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.