What happened was…
In 2015, self-dubbed "unconsultant" Keith Hill said the following to Country Aircheck in an article section unbelievably titled, "This One's Not for Girls": "Finally, Hill cautions against playing too many females. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-no. “If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out,” he asserts. “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. I’m basing that not only on music tests from over the years, but more than 300 client radio stations. The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.” (Click for full article.)
Let the tomato throwing begin...
Those comments resulted in a industry-wide clapback that introduced the terms #tomatogate and #saladgate into country music's lexicon. At the time, you probably saw it everywhere as you scrolled through your screens. It's likely you saw your favorite female artists speak out about it or sport some style of a "tomatoes-be-damned" t-shirt. It's generally safe to say the comments were received poorly by many.
Beyond the fact that his statements are literally textbook sexism, there's another, perhaps bigger, problem with Keith Hill's counsel.
Using his own language, if men are the lettuce and women the tomatoes, then the industry itself must be "the bowl". Station managers, PDs, MDs, on air talent, record labels, music publications, chart monitors, research groups, managers, booking agents, and talent buyers, all make up the framework that supports the country music business. Many of you, reading this now, make up "The Bowl" that holds it all together. And, as it seems, Keith Hill, and consultants like him, have had their hands all over you for years.
After all, it was "The Bowl" that actually went to print with the Aircheck article including this ill-advised intro, "That’s why Country Aircheck called on consultant Keith Hill (playfully described by some as “the world’s leading authority on music scheduling)..."
It was "The Bowl" that heard his comments the first time around at CRS a few months prior and didn't find them particularly problematic.
It was "The Bowl" who hired Keith Hill as a consultant countless times giving him opportunity after opportunity to repeat his overtly sexist reports.
"The Bowl" allowed Keith Hill's tomatoes to become an industry legend. One that has so prominently permeated our playlists that the Tennessean put our dismal reality on display in a recent article titled "3 years after 'Tomato-gate,' there are even fewer women on country radio":
"Hill cited research showing music created by women reflected 19 percent of songs played on country radio.
The remarks sparked a proverbial food fight between music makers and country radio. For some, the flap sparked hope that bringing the issue to the surface would yield progress.
It hasn't. In fact, by some metrics, women have lost ground in country music.
The percentage of purely female country songs charted by Country Aircheck dropped to 10.4 percent last year, down from 13 percent in 2016".
"The Bowl" served up the lopsided salad we are all now forced to endure. But why?
How did we get here?
By now, we all know what Keith Hill said but where did he get his data? In the Country Aircheck article, he talked about research but, after actively searching online, we haven't been able to actually find any unbiased sources to support his statements.
As it turned out, this week, we would have an opportunity to ask him for it ourselves. Keith Hill decided to double down on his statements in a new blog that he kicked off by saying, "I have decided to cause more problems."
Oh, sure. That's a course of action that comes highly recommended. Blatant disregard for the concerns of women is quite a bold move in the current #MeToo and #TimesUp era. Although, it shouldn't be entirely surprising since he seems to feel satisfactorily surrounded by the comfort of "The Bowl":
Don't look now, but it seems he might have caught on to the industry's virtue signaling game.
This time around, though, we wanted more actual information. Not opinions. We're certain that we have enough of those from good ol' Keith. We wanted his data. So, we asked for it:
Yes, yes. Secret data is always the best kind. He wants us to buy it. Clever.
We left it alone for a bit but ended up circling back when he began referring to it as his "discovery": The entire thread, containing a 20+ year gender-theory-in-the-making, began something like, "Me and Moon just removed the women." You can read it below:
The women of country music are being restricted to somewhere around 10% representation on any given playlist because some guy back in the 90s decided the ONLY reason that he could think of for an entire industry's ratings drop was its women?
Did "The Bowl" kinda forget to ask the necessary follow up questions? Did we really get here because countless industry leaders before us didn't bother to ask if ANY other factors were even considered?
It sure seems that way.
WOMAN has since reached out to Nielsen with five questions that we feel are valid to this conversation. Their team is working to gather information and we will be circling back when we have it. Our questions were:
Where might we find Nielsen’s long-term study on the year-to-year ratings impact of multiple major market country stations affording equal airtime to male and female artists per hour?
Does Nielsen have any reports/data on country radio stations with a 50/50 gender playlist or anything close? Where might we find those?
In the late 1990s, if our memories serve us well, Arbitron was still exclusively using pen-and-paper books. Using the book entry fields, was it possible during that time for a station to pinpoint the cause of listener tune-out as being related to the gender of the artist having just been played?
Is it possible to determine the cause of a listener tuning out of a station as being the gender of the artists using the PPM?
Does Nielsen have any data to support the idea that women do not like, or are easily “fatigued” by songs by women independent from there just being more men available to listen to on most stations?
The response we have received from their team, to date, has been, "The information you're seeking from Nielsen is not readily available. We need to do quite a bit of work to tie artist gender to ratings and tune-out. We have connected internally and have kicked off our analytic approach to dig in on this subject, but it will take some time to be thorough. Please know that Nielsen is keen to offer fact-based insight on this subject and will present it widely when we have our insights pulled together and vetted."
Until then, WOMAN is going to consider it safe to assume that country music needs no more harebrained theories that come exclusively from "Me and Moon." If the industry experts can't readily provide the information needed to support a gender-based theory of audience tune-out, we don't lend a lot of credibility to anecdotal accounts from a few decades ago.
Humorously, Keith wrote a second blog over the weekend in an effort to put a woman from Twitter in her place. He outlined five contributing factors for the iHeart and Cumulus bankruptcies. Five reasons including: "the internet".
Yet, in the late 90s, clearly the only answer he could come up with was: "the women". (Between us and the fence post, we probably would have pinned it on the prevalence of the mullet.)
The problem with the women...
Sexism is sometimes subtle. It is not always a problem with tone or action. Occasionally, it's in the presentation of information.
Keith Hill's “opinions” have helped shape an industry so the following is important. Over the weekend, people who doubted or disagreed with his “discovery” engaged with him on social media. Many of them happened to be women. Shocking, we know.
Less surprising, he was often very dismissive of them.
Several implied that they personally no longer listened to mainstream country radio. Some suggested that perhaps those who wanted to hear female voices might have left the format altogether resulting in a homogeneous audience too circular to be reliable.
There was some speculation that the country music community's sexism had played a role in the big conglomerate's bankruptcies. He dedicated the entire aforementioned blog singularly to trying to shut that one woman down.
Each time someone suggested the format was struggling at all, it seemed he was quick to tell them they were wrong and brag about its strength and reach. His response to one woman, after encouraging her to rally the women to buy their own station, was this:
Far from on its knees, he says! The bankruptcies were because of broader things like the entire economic collapse. Clearly, these women were crazy to suggest any struggle within country radio.
Except, earlier this week, a man did a YouTube video on the topic of Keith Hill's latest round of comments. As some men have a tendency to do in matters of gender inequality, the vlogger gave a generous amount of space for Keith to just be misguided, chalking most of the kerfuffle up to his approach. Keith was apparently a fan of the video and commented on it. This time, leveling, man-to-man:
Worth mentioning: The apology for the"appearance of trolling women" was given only to a man.
Since 2008, you say? Interesting. An article from The Guardian embarrassingly titled, "Where have country music's women gone?" reported this:
Utilizing the "Me and Moon" method of only focusing on one possible problem, it appears we might want to put the women back in! At least that notion could be supported by an actual research study available for review.
Sadly, Keith Hill continued to show his true colors in regards to women. The vlogger had praised a woman, who has since passed on, for her work to expose gender inequality in the country music industry. The following were Keith's comments about her:
When you're batting a thousand with the living, why not take a swing at those we've tragically lost too?
That woman, by the way, was admired by many. Her name was Devarati Ghosh and she was a Stanford University researcher who "used Billboard’s Country Airplay chart to segment findings into three time clusters: 1992-1999, 2000-2007, and 2008-2015. Her findings showed the presence of women on the charts diminished over the years."
Hers, arguably, was a slightly more reliable system than "Me and Moon".
The driving need for Keith Hill to include his personal thoughts about her seems par for the course. Praise and practicality for the men. Dismissal and disdain for the women.
Going in circles...
As one might imagine, after all this, some on social media focused solely on how Keith Hill's statements were simply not fair to women. He, of course, prides himself on a laissez faire approach. In his mind, we are all just a product of the "decisions of the marketplace":
Can we all agree his desire for fairness should come under some scrutiny and criticism? If for no other reason than, when Keith gets to bragging about being an “expert”, he doesn’t strike us as particularly hands off:
That's really the issue here, isn't it? Keith Hill isn't hands off. He has had his hands on "The Bowl" for years. He has repeatedly shared with us his perfect salad recipe.
In that original Country Aircheck article, he mentioned having worked with over 300 radio stations. Oy vey. The women of country music are up against a crackpot theory that has made its way into hundreds of radio stations, found a seat on a panel at Country Radio Seminar, and ended up in print in respected industry publications, all prior to its current folklore form that continues to be passed down.
Where are we now?
What have the results been? What has this horrible culture done to deserving careers?
If you ask Keith, any negative results are not a problem of his theory. They are a problem, again, of the "marketplace." His hands are clean.
Worth mentioning: It appears civility and loving country music are traits only credited to men.
Please afford us a minute to wander a little here:
The "marketplace”, as it exists in the current country music/radio landscape, is reasonably parallel to this:
You’re thirsty. You head to the vending machine. It only sells water. Water’s not your favorite, but you’re wanting something. You buy water. Does your purchase indicate a demand for water? Did you prefer water? No. It was the only offering. Welcome to the “marketplace”.
But, back to all those lost careers...
On Twitter, supporters of female artists also took objection to Keith's theory in the name of Opportunity. Full transparency, WOMAN actively advocates for women to have more opportunity. It's part of our mission to ensure the women of country music have more marketshare, opportunities, resources, and equality.
Keith Hill seems to believe we already have enough:
Now, we feel it takes a special sort of ridiculousness to imply that a group with only 10% representation, based solely on its gender, has enough opportunity. Keith's insistence on it is particularly problematic since he has publicly admitted that stations across America pay him to tell them what to play. The "world's leading authority" if we're not mistaken...
The idea that he claimed was “tuned to perfection” messed with only one metric: the number of women played. Common sense would say that a change like that might rob women of, what's the word?, oh... opportunity.
No other variables. They removed the women and that was that.
Brothers and sisters of "The Bowl", please let that sink in.
It's one thing to realize we've all been made a fool. It's another to acknowledge the reality and repercussions of our actions. This theory has potentially devastated the quality of our community in ways we cannot imagine. These women weren't faceless, nameless wannabes:
Martina McBride? Arguably one of the best vocalists to ever grace the Grand Ole Opry stage and we swept her aside? We slashed JoDee Messina's plays in half just because she was a woman? Shameful.
Somewhere, we thought we had heard a shared creed... something about a circle being unbroken...
It seems from where we are standing, after having squeezed them all into a small 10%, that when it comes to its women, country music has forgotten to take care of its own. Now, what would all the sweet mamas in our songs say about that?
Opportunity is not our only stumbling block though. WOMAN also advocates for equality. Keith Hill thinks we have enough of that too. According to him, we have "equality of opportunity". We can find it anytime we want in the “free market” he meddles in so frequently.
Admittedly, WOMAN has advocated for a more Conscious Country music community. But communist? No. We just want simple equality. You know, like what the men have. The kind of stuff that says, "Yeah, this is 2018!"
Unfortunately for us, and the women of the last twenty years, Keith Hill believes that is impossible. As he has expressly stated, time and time again, in a theory that should only be described as misguided, sexist, and misogynistic.
15% women. 15% women. 15% women.
According to his advice, women should make up no more than 15% of a playlist in an industry where, as he has declared, equality cannot be obtained or attained by women anyway.
We can only end with this:
As the intelligent and artistic woman, Maya Angelou, once said, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
So, now we want to talk to all of you - those who make up "The Bowl" of country music. We've talked about the past 20 years. The 10%. #Tomatogate. The careers cut in half.
All that is on you. You broke "The Bowl" by allowing it to persist. But, it's time now to fix it and move forward.
We will continue to work to find sources of reliable research for all of us to review. Right now, though, many of your existing methods and call-outs can't count. Your listeners are biased toward male voices to the tune of 8, or sometimes 9, out of every 10. Your audiences have become unaccustomed to female voices. They have been told, by all of you, all of these years, knowingly or unknowingly, that women are just a subset in country music's salad bowl.
But they aren't. Patsy, Dolly, Loretta, Emmylou, Tanya, Reba, Patty, Suzy, Mary, Wynonna, Trisha, Terri, Sara, Chely, Kathy, LeAnn, Faith, JoDee, Lee Ann, Deana, Shania, Martina, The Chicks, Taylor, Carrie, Miranda, Margo, Kacey, Kelsea, Cam, and Maren are not tomatoes. Neither are their countless other female counterparts, too many to name completely, who sing, write, perform, and play country music on par with their male peers.
"The Bowl" needs repair and restoration.
Most of your audiences lean over 50% female and we hold over 51% of America's personal wealth. Nielsen just touted the financial power of country music's women and released a recent report on the overall strength of modern day women as a powerhouse that invests.
Country Music Industry,
Time’s Up on #Tomatogate. It is time for a new season where women can bring the full weight of their talent, economic power, and presence back to our community. Today ushers in a new season of change so our beloved circle can remain.