(Straight From Nashville is a weekly column written by CMT.com managing editor Calvin Gilbert.)
It was another boys club this week when the Academy of Country Music announced eight male nominees for its new artist of the year. That’s no huge surprise given the chart and sales numbers of female artists during the past year.
Country radio tends to get the blame, but radio programmers and consultants are always an easy target for whatever perceived ills exist in the music industry. Like it or not, country music, in particular, is still driven by radio airplay, and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
As someone who thought they had a pretty good understanding of the radio business, the years I spent working at Radio & Records, the now-defunct trade magazine, were a real eye-opener for me. And if there’s one thing I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt, it’s this:
The people who run mainstream country radio stations may love country music, its artists and the excitement of working in the broadcast environment, but their primary objective is to make as much money as possible for their employer. The higher the ratings are, the more they can charge for advertising. That’s how those radio stations keep their doors open and their transmitters filling the airwaves with music.
It’s as simple as that. As a Nashville veteran told me when I moved to town, “It’s called the music business for a reason.”
If any chauvinism does exist in the radio industry, the notion of making a financial profit trumps everything. It’s impossible to imagine anyone working for a major corporation sitting in a conference room and plotting a complex, dastardly plan to withhold airplay for female artists. They’re merely playing the music that’s working for them at any given moment.
Looking at Billboard’s year-end numbers, it’s obvious that new female artists weren’t exactly clicking with the masses in 2014. On the country songs list — which reflects radio airplay, sales and online streams — the highest-ranking new female act was Maddie & Tae with their first single, “Girl in a Country Song,” at No. 44. Danielle Bradbery landed at No. 68 with “The Heart of Dixie” and RaeLynn reached No. 80 with “God Made Girls.”
A lot about rankings on year-end charts has to do with when the single was released. For instance, RaeLynn’s single was released about six months ago and is at No. 18 and still going strong on Billboard’s country airplay chart. Elsewhere on the current airplay chart, two other female newcomers have landed — Kelsea Ballerini (No. 35 with “Love Me Like You Mean It”) and Mickey Guyton (debuting at No. 56 with “Better Than You Left Me”).
It’s not that the country music community is turning its back on female artists. The labels are still signing them and trying to create success stories. Radio consultants still make their decisions on market research and feedback from listeners. And I’m particularly proud of my colleague Leslie Fram, who joined CMT as our senior vice president of music strategy in 2011 and has proved to be a staunch supporter of great music, in general. In addition to launching CMT’s digital performance series, Concrete Country, she also created the network’s Next Women of Country campaign to call attention to emerging female artists.
Ultimately, the future of country music, including the status of its female artists, will be determined by the marketplace. There’s always room for optimism that one of these new artists will become country music’s next superstar.
True superstars don’t happen very often, regardless of their gender, but there was a time when nobody had ever heard of Underwood and Lambert, either.