Stoney Creek Records artist Lindsay Ell believes the male/female artist issue on country radio begins with the labels and more specifically within the A&R division. “It can become a game of pointing fingers,” she said on the latest CRS360 webinar, “A Discussion of Gender Balance at Country Radio: Part II.” After the first webinar presented a battery of research showing that female country artists don’t receive as much airplay or reach the same heights on country music charts as their male counterparts, the follow-up looked at root causes and potential solutions.
Ell says that if the labels aren’t signing female songwriters and artists, “it trickles down. Radio is the last place you’re going to see it,” she continued. “It’s like a long-term investment, you start investing but you aren’t going to see tangible results until a few years down the road.”
Ell does believe it is getting better. “I feel like everything is cyclical,” she continues. “We are due for a strong resurgence of female artists.” Ell mentioned Nashville songwriters who are penning songs specifically with female artists in mind and the recent top of the chart posting for Kelsea Ballerini and the half-dozen female artists within the Top 30.
Beville Dunkery, Head of Country Music at Pandora, who worked in broadcast radio in the late 90s, says gender disparity has been an ongoing issue. When she was programming country radio stations, “consultants were telling us to only play a female every four or five songs,” Dunkery recalls. She acknowledged that both radio and the labels share the blame. “It’s really all of our faults.”
At Pandora, Dunkery has no shame in going out of her way to support and champion female country artists. “We do give special attention to female artists, trying to program their music everywhere we think it’s going to work,” she said. “I’d be lying if I said we aren’t giving women artists special attention because we want to even the playing field. And so many women are making such great music.” Using a football analogy, comparing labels to quarterbacks and Pandora to wide receivers, Dunkery continued, “We are going to try and catch every ball you throw at us. But sometimes the fans are blocking us from making a touchdown.” Those blocks come in the form of thumb-downs on tracks the listener isn’t fond of.
Ell debunks the long-standing belief that women don’t want to hear music from other women. “My audience is 70% female – maybe even more than that,” she says. “I don’t believe for one second females don’t want to listen to females. The notion of the rule that females don’t want to hear females is completely false.”
Ell believes progress is being made to even out the gender gap, but is okay with it being an organic, natural occurrence. Forcing the issue with quotas won’t solve it, she maintains. “I don’t think that’s a good way to go about it,” says the Canadian-born artist who is familiar with her country’s government-mandated “Can Con” regulations that require playing a certain percentage of Canadian artists. “That is not the way we win ultimately… The goal should be about the quality of music, not just the quantity of it.” A more gradual evening out of the male-to-female ratio on country radio would have longer-lasting effects. “If it happens super-fast, it’s going to fall super-fast.” The industry is “heading in a positive place,” Ell says. “But it will take a minute.” –Jay Gleason