Equal Play: The Movement That Won’t Quiet Down Until Radio Listens

Play our f*****g records, please and thank you. Jennifer Nettles arrived at the 2019 CMA Awards in an outfit displaying that very message. It was simple, and it was polite. Nettles, a woman in country music, was asking for the very thing women can’t seem to get: Equal Play.

It’s been almost five years since Tomato-gate, the fateful comment that set country radio on fire. Keith Hill, a radio consultant, compared radio playlists to salads. He said that playing men on the air was equivalent to the lettuce of a salad and that playing women was equivalent to the tomatoes. Because according to Hill, nobody wants tomatoes in their salad. And if they do, they’re just there for the garnish.

carrie Underwood WOmen

Justin Aharoni (@jaharoni) for NYCountry Swag

After that, Martina McBride sold shirts that said “Tomato Lover”; Todd Cassety founded Song Suffragettes, the all-female songwriters round to give new artists a platform; Carrie Underwood took Maddie & Tae and Runaway June out on tour; Bobby Bones dedicated a radio show to female artists; The Highwomen started their own movement. Things may not be quite as bad as they were in 2015, but they’re not much better.

In 2019, Jada Watson of University of Ottawa and the founder of Songdata.co released an astonishing set of data: for every 10 male artists played on country radio, 1 female artist will be played. That includes everyone from Carrie Underwood to the women of Little Big Town. Watson also reported that the top 10 artists of the past two decades consisted of all men.

None of this is new information. Radio has been blocking women from being played for more than 25 years. Radio banned Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill”; they banned the Dixie Chicks, who are perhaps one of the most influential bands of all time, because radio didn’t agree with their politics; and even icon Faith Hill had her own problems with the format.

In a resurfaced video posted by twitter user RachelNorman86, a young Hill recounts an encounter she had with a radio programmer. “I was asking the gentleman all these questions, trying to find out all this information,” she told the interviewer. “And he said, ‘You know, we’re getting a lot of females coming our way here and we’re going to have to cut back on our [per/hour] playlist.’ And I asked him, ‘How many you play right now?’ And he said, ‘I play one an hour.’ And I said, ‘What are you gonna do, play half a song?’ Or one every two hours?” She laughed along with the interviewer, but it’s clear that even then, the gate-keepers were negatively controlling radio.

Country radio’s gender problem is based on myths, such as “women don’t want to hear women”, which is not only offensive but clearly false. Their exclusivity extends beyond gender and stretches all the way to race. While the genre was actually built by people of color, many “gatekeepers” have a problem with diversity. Mickey Guyton, one of the more intriguing newcomers of the past decade, shared her story on Twitter.

“I was told that country radio didn’t want to play 2 ballads by 2 females at the same time. So they played one girl and quit playing mine. It was heartbreaking,” Mickey Guyton shared on Twitter. “I was also told that just because you’re black doesn’t mean your songs have to sound so country. I’ve sang at shows where drunk men were waving their confederate flags right in front where all could see. But I stood there because I deserved to stand there singing my country songs. I can keep going.”

All female country artists have a story like this. It could be about their gender, their race, their lyrics. The obstacles for women in society are already high, and even more so in the entertainment business.

Song Suffragettes and CMT Next Women of Country are two resources that have helped many women. Song Suffragettes launches female singer-songwriters into the Nashville scene, and CMT has special tours and exclusive music video premieres that showcase female talent. Leslie Fram, the senior vice president of CMT, and Todd Cassety, the founder of Song Suffragettes, have done more to change the conversation than all the FM country stations combined.

Last Thursday, January 16th, Kelsea Ballerini, Kacey Musgraves, and more fought back at a Michigan station who claimed they weren’t allowed to play two women back to back – not even Lady Antebellum following Little Big Town. For NYCS’ recap article on the event, click here. This supports Jada Watson’s data set, which stated that 72% of country radio songs by solo male artists, in comparison to the 17.1% solo female artists being played.

“That gives you an idea of the state of [country radio]. It’s not healthy. It’s not where it should be, and that is actually an insight into the condition of where [radio] is at.” Phillip Sweet of Little Big Town told Entertainment Tonight. “We should have a great balance of males and females because everyone has a great story to tell. And there’s so much great music being made by females that we’re not hearing. So, it’s just not good or healthy.”

“Ask yourself: what do you want your daughter to think about herself? If she cannot get that from country music, then we have a problem,” Brandi Carlile told Samantha Bee’s Full Frontal. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town echoed this sentiment, telling Entertainment Tonight, “[Band members Kimberly and Phillip] are the parents of daughters. If their girls were listening to nothing but country radio, then they would never hear a girl’s story.”

It’s hard to put these problems and feelings into words anymore. It feels like an exhausted subject. How many times can a person ask what seems like a simple question? Women do want to hear women. Men want to hear women. Everyone wants to hear an array of stories and experiences. This doesn’t mean there’s not a place for songs about trucks, but there should also be a place for diversity.

Mainstream music has become complicated. Consumption has changed so drastically that musicians will give into demand over supply. They’re making music instead of creating it; meaning, that instead of letting ideas unfold naturally, they’re writing to a programmed beat and cranking out album after album. It’s less inspired now. It’s possible the gender imbalance is more noticeable now because of the lack of substance in some hit songs.

On January 19th, Pure Country 99 in Kingston, Ontario announced that the station would be committing one week to completely equal airplay for male and female artists. If the mission is a success, more action will be taken. On January 21st, Leslie Fram and CMT announced their #CMTEqualPlay initiative on Twitter. “Effective immediately all music video hours on CMT and CMT Music channels will have complete parity between male and female artists. That means 50/50.”

Play our f*****g records, please and thank you. Jennifer Nettles’ equal play plea is needed now more than ever, and so are Ballerini, Musgraves, and Little Big Town’s enlightening comments. We live in a divided time, and if there’s one thing we can hopefully all agree on, it’s that art and music matter more than ever. There are people out there who need to hear these stories. After five years, it finally feels like things are moving in the right direction. It has taken a long time, but time’s up. We won’t quiet down until radio listens. Please and thank you.

For more information on what you as a listener can do, NYCS has provided a list of websites and resources for you to check out:
WOMAN Nashville, Change the Conversation, Songdata, and Equal Play.

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