photos: Reba McEntire courtesy BMLG; Carrie Underwood by Timothy Kuratek/CBS; Dolly Parton by Quantrell Colbert/NBC
As someone who books female country artists and bands, it shouldn’t be surprising to me that talented women country artists are not represented well. Looking at Billboard’s Top Country Artists for 2017, you won’t find a women solo artist in the top 15! Miranda Lambert is the top women country artist at number 16 on the list. In fact, there are only 4 in the top 25 and 9 in the top 50!
Even if you throw in Little Big Town (22 on the list) and Lady Antebellum (28 on the list), it’s easy to see that women country artists, no matter how talented they are, have a very hard time breaking through.
Back to the list. Of the 9 solo country female artists on the list, two are legends, (Shania and Reba) and another is Taylor Swift. We can eliminate Reba and Shania from my point because they have paid their dues to have the fan base they have, and they continue to engage their fans with live musical performances.
If we discount these legends and Taylor (more pop than country now), we are now down to six country female music stars who devote all their efforts to being played on the radio and performing for the fan base they develop through radio play. Of course, we expect to find the top two female country artists on the list. I’m talking about Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. They are the most famous of contemporary solo female country music artists. I’m disappointed to find them at number 16 and 23 respectively though. They have been the only breakthrough female country artists since the wave of “new” country in the 1990s when several women made it big in country music. People like Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Lee Ann Womack, Jo Dee Messina, Sara Evans and Faith Hill.
Why Aren’t Female Country Music Artists Playing on the Radio?
It’s much harder for female country singers today. There’s a lot of reasons. The demise of many independent country radio stations is part of it. Consolidation of the radio industry makes it even harder for any country artists trying to break through to get radio play. This doesn’t explain why women aren’t getting the air time though.
Radio programmers are chasing the next big thing in country music and trying to please their fan base. The common refrain from them is that women make up a larger proportion of their listening audience and women don’t want to listen to women country music artists. It’s all about consumer demand according to this line of reasoning.
In fact, in 2015, Keith Hill, a guy who is said to be the “World’s Leading Authority on Music Scheduling, said this in an interview with Country Aircheck: “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. He goes on to say that “The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists.” What’s more, he says that country music is principally a male format and that’s the expectation throughout the industry. You can read the full interview here.
The best women do in his 40 music databases are 19% of country artists. One study last year in Canada where country music is still king, found that female country artists’ songs were being played on three stations one time for every 9 male country artist songs. That’s means that only 11% of songs played on these three country radio stations during the 12-hour period monitored were female country artists.
Female Country Artists Need Fans to Survive
Female artists can’t develop a large fan base without being played on the radio. They may be able to develop a local or regional following over time with a lot of work on their part. Playing small venues where they are known and engagement with the fans they have using social media helps, but it doesn’t compare to getting radio play.
That’s why it’s even more critical for a female country artist to have backing behind them. With enough money, they can make great recordings; create a brand; and develop a quality website, EPK, DPK, and social media channels. It also can help them find the right management and a radio promotion company that can get them played.
If they are really fortunate, they may be picked up by a record label that will help them with these efforts. Unfortunately, record labels now also want you to be playing on the radio and have a large following before they are likely to sign a female country artist.
The bottom line is that a female country artist, no matter how talented she is, needs sponsors to help her. In fact, they will likely need more backing than her male counterpart. It’s sad, but true.
Country Music isn’t the only genre affected by the “male expectation.” TSE Entertainment books a lot of Tejano, Tex-Mex and Mexican Regional music acts. Try finding a solo female artist in this genre. Selena, even in death, is probably still the most popular female singer in this genre.
Booking Female Country Artists
For booking agencies like TSE Entertainment, booking female country artists is a chicken and egg situation. Without a fan base, we can’t book them no matter how hard we try. Without radio play, they can’t develop a fan base outside of their home market. Yet, they keep looking to booking agencies to take them to new markets and the next level with bigger pay days.
TSE Entertainment has some very talented female country artists on our roster. We want very much to keep them busy playing their music and earning a living from it. That’s the conundrum we face as a booking agency. Venues want performers, whether female or male, to fill their seats. They do not want to book “unknown” performers who will not bring out fans to the performance. They want evidence of a fan base in their area.
One option for female country singers who are not being played on the radio are showcase events such as festivals, conferences, etc. where talent buyers can be found. While not earning income, such events can get female country singers known to that talent buyer market.
There are also corporate events. These events have a captured audience and for many corporate functions, they are only looking for a great entertainer who will make their audience enjoy the experience.
Bigger corporate events which are thrown to bring people to the event will require a county music artist, female or male, with a big following.
If they are lucky and have a booking agency with pull, a female country artist may be able to open foe a bigger named country artist. In that way she can introduce herself to that artist’s large fan base and garner fans that way.
The Bottom Line for Female Country Artists
The odds are stacked against female country artists. They will need to work harder, have more backing and be more persevering than their male counterparts in the country music industry. Sounds a lot like women in other occupations, doesn’t it?
At TSE, we believe that female country music artists should have the same opportunities as men. We will do our part to change the part of the music industry in which we function. However, we are not miracle workers.
Until songs are judged on their own merits, instead of the gender of the singer; and until the country music listening audience decides to push radios stations for more female country artists’ songs, this problem will persist.