Lifestyle Magazine

The Equal Play Movement Making Waves in Country Music

By Phjoshua @thereviewsarein

If you're a country music fan and use social media, there's a strong chance that you've seen posts recently talking about the fight for equal play for women on country radio. It's been hard to miss and it's important not to ignore.

It's not a new story, but it's got new life after a Michigan country radio station tweeted that they weren't allowed to play back-to-back women, even if one of the songs were to be Lady Antebellum or Little Big Town. In one tweet, suspicions and conspiracy theories were confirmed for a lot of people. The station denied it and said they would be doing their own internal investigation. But the damage, as they say, had been done and we were all taken back to Tomato-gate all over again.

This is the year 2020. The concept of female country singers having their songs played in equal amounts to men on the radio shouldn't be groundbreaking. The idea that two women can't have their songs played one after the other should sound like the most completely foolish thing in the music industry. But here we are, with both of those ideas staring us right in the face.

In Kingston, ON, one radio station took Kelsea Ballerini's responses to the 98 KCQ tweet to heart and made a commitment to a moment that might have started a movement. Kelsea (who seemed to be bubbling with frustration) tweeted a wish list of female artists she wanted to hear - and added two more in a follow-up tweet. And then, Pure Country 99 stepped in and promised to play all 14 artists and a song of her own to go with it on Sunday night.


- Kelsea Ballerini (@KelseaBallerini) January 16, 2020

But it didn't stop there. On Sunday, the station also announced that starting on Monday morning, the station would be committed to 50/50 equal play for male and female artists between 6 am and 6 pm. That's big. And it's not just a gesture. It's not just an hour or a day or a one-off. This is 12 hours a day for a week with actual real equal play. It's significant and we hope that it is seen by the entire industry as such.

Starting tomorrow, our station is committing one week to completely EQUAL airplay, for male & female artists, 6am-6pm. Our mission is to show women that the problem is not with them & that listeners want to hear them. We need YOUR support‼️

- Kingston's Pure Country (@PureCountry99) January 20, 2020

I reached out to Pure Country 99 Program Director, Brittany Thompson and asked about making the decisions about Sunday night's Kelsea Ballerini Request Playlist, and the 50/50 play week. She said, "We were able to make the decision so quickly because we genuinely believed it was the right moment to do something. We don't believe that people don't want to hear women and when it came to weighing the pros and cons, there were no cons. We believe that when you choose based on quality and let bias or pressure take a back seat, you choose the best options for your listeners. Give them a chance to become familiar and make it a normal part of their music exposure and eventually it will test well. But sometimes you have to make a statement to start a change. I am always looking for new ways or new approaches when it comes to my job. I also try to avoid creating comfort zones for myself so when there is a chance to step forward and use the platform for the betterment of the industry, I am happy to volunteer."

On Tuesday, the good news continued for the equal play movement when CMT took to Twitter to make a mega announcement...

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. #CMTEqualPlay

- CMT (@CMT) January 21, 2020

In a post on their website, CMT confirmed their commitment to increasing from a 60/40 split to a 50/50 split and expressed hope that country music radio will follow suit. Female artists like Brandy Clark, Brandi Carlile, Runaway June, and Cassadee Pope all chimed in with thanks and support for the movement. And even Tegan and Sara responded to the tweet with (tongue in cheek?) "Maybe we should make a country album... 🥳🌈🤩⚡"

This is a big move. We know that most music video watching happens online these days, but CMT is still important, and the leader when it comes to influence and TV eyes in the category. When you add in the CMT music channels as well, you get more eyes and ears exposed to equal play. And you get more opportunities for women in country music to get played.

On Wednesday, more good news rolled in when 92.9 fm in Saskatoon, SK tweeted: "As some know, over the years we've done our damndest to play an equal rotation of men and women on our radio station. Today it becomes a hard rule. 50/50 split between male and female artists. 24 hours a day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. That's the Tweet. #CMTEqualPlay"

Like we said before, this isn't new. Tomato-gate was in 2015. In 2018 we published a post titled, Why Maren Morris Hitting Number One Matters, And Why It Shouldn't - looking at the disparity between men and women at the top of the country music charts. And guess what, songs can't reach number one if they're not getting played.

Now in 2020, maybe we're moving in the right direction. Maybe this will be the splash that has the ripple effect that changes things. Maybe we'll hear more women on country radio and then see more women included on major streaming playlists and then see them climb the charts on a more regular basis too.

And maybe we'll see them play more country music festivals too.

In 2019 I looked at the lineups for three major country music festivals (two in Ontario, one in Alberta) to see how many women were playing. The three festivals had 37.5%, 25%, and 20.5% women on their lineups... not great.

Two of those festivals have started releasing their lineup for 2020 with 3 of 17 performers counting as women at one and 1 of 9 performers being a woman at the other. There's a chance that the numbers get closer to even as more names are added to fill out the lineups, but they would have to be unexpectedly tilted to get anywhere close to 50/50.

It's discouraging to have moments of excitement and to think that change is coming when we see an all-woman Friday night lineup or Miranda Lambert headlining on a Saturday night. But then we realize that in 2019 with #1 hits and massive fan support, Maren Morris isn't considered a headliner. And women aren't perceived as able to sell tickets by putting them on the poster or having their names in the big font at the top of the lineup.

We've been dreaming of an all-woman country festival since 2014 when I fantasy booked a two-day, 1 stage Canadian lineup. It's a little dated now, but that was five and a half years ago, and it doesn't feel like that dream is any closer to reality.

I spoke with a booking agent who works with men and women in multiple genres about the imbalance in country music. They said, "There is a real imbalance in the live scene in country music. With no real developing club circuit in Canada, most artists have to play the waiting game of getting a hit on the radio, then getting the attention of a headliner to get that coveted support slot (if you're lucky), in order to develop their hard ticket value. There is also a real disconnect between what artists think their financial worth is, and what it actually is, and this affects their willingness to tour and invest in their live careers at that crucial development stage. I can count on one hand the number of Canadian country artists who are at the headliner / arena level: Dallas Smith, Dean Brody, Paul Brandt and High Valley all come to mind. There are many factors that influence how and why they have attained that status, and one of them (and arguably the most important) is consistent radio play. We already know that country radio is hugely problematic in not playing enough content from female artists, and this, in turn, affects demand for an artist. Take a look at the country rosters of the major Canadian labels, management companies and agencies. How many of them have more than one female country artist? You can also look at major country tours. How many are still going out with all-male lineups? If a festival buyer can't ascertain real hard-ticket value on an artist, they simply can't justify putting that artist on any prime-time slots, or even bother with booking female artists. Lots of festival buyers who I speak to still report that their biggest nights are when they have male headliners. Festival buyers need to sell tickets and beer, and program their line ups accordingly. A lot of them are not thinking about diversity and equity. This systematic lack of support for female artists is what creates this wildly unequal scene."

It feels like we've been on this corner championing women and trying to shine a light on their music for years. But maybe we haven't been loud enough. Maybe we haven't said yes enough. Maybe we could have done more.

We endeavour to cover women in country (and all genres) with the same dedication and energy that we cover men. Take big swings on up-and-coming female artists. We put women in the spotlight with a goal of 50/50 every year when we present the Country Music Association of Ontario Artist of the Month. We've highlighted women when running our annual Boots & Hearts ticket contest. We've celebrated female performers on festival lineups. We've publicly questioned the lack of women on those same festival lineups.

The plan now is to keep doing what we're doing. We will celebrate the big wins of female artists. We will do our best to give great new music by women in country, pop, rock, folk, and more the due they deserve. And we hope that you'll help us move the needle by putting pressure on your local radio stations with requests, by adding women to your playlists on Spotify, and by sharing songs and albums you love via social media.

I asked Brittany Thompson one more question about the moves made at Pure Country 99 in Kingston: What does it mean for you to be part of this and hopefully lead a big change? Her words feel like the perfect ending to this post and I hope that we all keep pushing forward.

"For me personally, it's cool to see it take off a bit. But it's not about me at all. More than ever, though, I feel lucky to have a position in radio that still not a ton of women have, if you're looking at it industry-wide, and to know I am treated equal and not missing out on opportunities because I am a woman. That comes down to great leadership and that's what I want to pay forward. I think we, and I mean the country music industry, needs to dust off a bit. We can't always be looking at what everyone else inside our bubble is doing for reassurance that we are doing what is right. We need to look more at what the world around us is asking for and start to compare ourselves to that."

The Equal Play Movement Making Waves in Country Music

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