Follow us for any amount of time and you’ll hear something over and over: familiarity first.
Familiarity is one of the reasons we put increased emphasis on the impact of radio in advancing women in country music. Listeners respond to what is familiar. How many times have you heard a new on song the radio and hated it right out of the gate? Now, think about how many times you’ve caught yourself humming or singing along to that same song a few weeks later after hearing it just enough times? It likely happens way more than any of us would want to admit. So what changes? Mostly, familiarity. The song simply becomes more familiar. It becomes a part of your day or drive or bar experience or built environment.
Radio is, for many, a passive listening experience. Streaming is all about seeking out favorites and stumbling upon new artists/music. It is a more active pursuit. By nature, radio is mostly spoon fed to us for lack of more generous phrasing. It is people’s entire jobs to listen to and choose the content that the rest of us get to hear through our speakers. And, for the most part, we trust that curation process. Not always. That’s what is happening in those first few listens when we grunt about something that’s hitting our ear as unfamiliar. We are rejecting what has been served up to us. With a little time though, and a lot more exposure, the majority of us tend to balance out. We start to hear what the program or music director(s) might have been getting at. Or, maybe, we just get worn down by… you guessed it… familiarity.
Looking at many new music surveys, listeners are asked if they recognize a song or if they like it on first listen. Both involve an element of familiarity. If a listener recognizes it, they’ve already begun to hear it enough for it to seem familiar and we all tend to feel strongly about things we feel like we know. If it’s totally foreign, a listener is likely to do two things: a) reject it or b) try to make a connection to other familiar sounds.
The advantage of familiarity is what the men of country music have almost exclusively enjoyed for the last 20 years. Their songs are spun more than those by women. As such, there are more men represented on the charts. Those songs are selected by outside services chasing the current “hits”. Men get booked on more tours so listeners can see the artists they hear most. Without even recognizing the reason, it’s common now for people to seek out male voices when they pick out their own personal music because it’s what they are most used to hearing. Male voices have somehow become what a host of people expect from country music because that’s what has made up most of the “menu” for most of the time.
When the women of country saw an increase in their airplay representation - people tend to look at the 90s - women’s careers started to really to soar. The listeners weren’t complaining then. They were buying records and tickets and building fan bases that help carry those stars still today. What has happened since is that the industry stopped serving up as many women as often. Simple as that. Women lost the advantage of repetition and familiarity.
If country music wants to fix its gender inequality problem - or many of its lopsided issues - it could start with addressing familiarity first. Listeners have to have a real chance, beyond those first few listens, to fall in love with a “new” or “different” sound. When more women are given that chance, we are confident they will once again see increased album and ticket sales, streaming numbers go up, fan bases grow, and ultimately more women being given more chances across the industry.
Familiarity should be the fastest approach to fixing this problem because all it takes is a commitment to play more of the talented women who are already putting out music worth hearing.