It’s hard to fix a problem that we don’t diagnose. Knowing what might have caused any challenge is an integral part of curing it for the long term. It’s also how we stop blaming a symptom (like “Bro-Country”) and start actively working to remove, rectify, or even just acknowledge, some of the root issues.
So, what are they? What types of things changed over the last 20 years that could have had such a negative impact on the careers of women in country music?
We focus on four major aspects that we believe worked together to allow bias, conscious and/or unconscious, to spread. It’s worth noting that paragraph after paragraph could be written about each of the following but that’s not our goal here. This is simply a starting guide for what we consider to be a few stand-out factors:
The “Tomatogate” “Experiment”
Most of us know all about Tomatogate and who articulated the idea that women should be the tomatoes in country music’s radio programming salad. What’s important to remember is that the seemingly anecdotal, unscientific “experiment” that led to myths about gender having any impact on station ratings happened in the late 1990s. Soon after, that bias left the few stations where it started and began to spread via consultants looking to peddle their new theory to other programmers.
In the aftermath of Tomatogate, many have admitted that radio stations will try just about anything if they think it will improve ratings. Even if some of their solutions or sources could be seen as ethically or academically questionable. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that programmers would consider giving the “just play less women” idea a ‘go’ if they thought it might bring in better numbers.
We believe that’s how one programmer-turned-consultant’s seemingly bad idea had an opportunity to end up as standard operating procedure at stations across America and ultimately impact national airplay results.
Less Independent Programming
Deregulation allowed for the emergence of conglomerates and centralized decision-making in a way that we hadn’t really encountered prior to the late 90s and early 00s. More and more stations were bought by a set of a few big businesses which resulted in less independent programmers and programming overall.
As the number of people who decided which songs would receive airplay was reduced with every new station cluster, playlists across the country became increasingly homogenized.
If some of the leaders who landed in those now more limited top spots believed some of the earlier biased theories that eventually became Tomatogate, it undoubtedly would have had an impact. What we’ve seen happen over the last 20 years supports the idea that less variation among programmers and playlists ended up creating new obstacles for women trying to be heard.
The Industry’s Stamp of Approval
By the mid-2000s, the seeds of myths like “women are bad for ratings” and “women don’t want to hear women” had been sown.
By the time CRB commissioned a research study on new music in 2006, those types of statements had become a big part of country radio’s folklore. When the results of that research were presented at the 2007 Country Radio Seminar (CRS) to the year’s largest gathering of country music decision makers, they included a key finding that explicitly stated, “Male artists perform better than female artists.”
In the same report were also these telling remarks about country radio’s attitude toward women at the time:
a) [this research] “…supports the general finding of earlier research in Country radio that male artists are more readily embraced by the audience than female artists.”
b) “One interesting thing is that this finding parallels what many Country program directors have known for some time— that Country music brand affiliation is very strong between female consumers and male artists.”
The first problem was that women were significantly outnumbered in the report’s data set - only one established female artist was even included. Categorical statements on a gender’s performance should likely never have been made using such a small sample of women.
The second problem is that, in our own searches, we haven’t been able to find any earlier concrete research or even technology from the time that would have been able to determine if an audience prefered to hear one gender over another. What seems more likely is that an industry- wide “group think” had emerged.
As the pond of PDs got smaller, and biased “big fish” managed to swim to the top, a clear culture marginalizing women surfaced too. That culture assumed and asserted some things that couldn’t actually be proven.
This type of research presentation turned opinion into fact. It paved a way for what was once just industry folklore to become “known and accepted business practices” among average PDs who would have perceived it to have been given an industry stamp of approval from a major educational event and the trade publications who would go onto report it.
Impact of Technology
Are you still using the same phone you had in the late 90s? What about 2000 or even 2010? Probably not.
Technology in radio has evolved over the last twenty years too. Not only are there less physical people making major music decisions across the nation but advancements have allowed for increased automaton as well.
Around the same time that all of the above was happening, stations began heavily adopting more efficient music scheduling software. Those systems included the ability to code songs by categories such as tempo, gender of artist, etc. Once the songs were coded in the catalog, rules could be set up to automate how the songs were played in rotation.
If you think about it, it makes sense not to play 15 slow heartbreak songs about drinking yourself to death in a row. So, maybe putting a cap on the number of cheating ballads that could play from 10:00pm to midnight wasn’t such a bad thing. After all, it saves audiences from suffering through the song choices of a depressed DJ in the throes of a bad divorce.
But, these new tools also created a way to automate bias.
Things like “1 in a Row” rules were recommended for songs by women which prevented the system from playing women back-to-back. Unfortunately, if you were a woman with a ballad, good luck getting heard after the automation worked its magic to ensure your song both stayed away from other women and was only light sprinkled throughout the day between mid and up tempo bangers.
This particular type of change- the increased use of and innovation in programming technology- began to impact the careers of women in ways that hitmakers from earlier eras would have never encountered or expected.
What was arguably good for the industry overall ended up to be, in combination with several other factors, devastating for women.
The industry has made big changes over the last two decades. As each of these things worked together, women became increasingly more disadvantaged.
Is it possible that all of it was done somewhat unintentionally? Did it happen at such a gradual pace over the years that no one really noticed until it was absolutely unavoidable? Sure, it’s possible.
The fact now is that we have noticed and we can’t avoid change any longer.
These four aspects, and many others, became building blocks for bias. We see the impact they’ve had on our industry’s approach to women’s work today. What we need now is to be intentional about changes that improve the culture moving forward. Because, as we learned from everything above, a few changes really can matter.