It took about two and a half hours, but a female country star finally collected a trophy at the Academy of Country Music Awards on Sunday night: Kacey Musgraves won album of the year for her unstoppable “Golden Hour.” Around 30 minutes later, she also took home the prize for female artist of the year.
"This award goes out to any woman, or girl — or anybody, really — that is maybe being told that her perspective or her style is too different to work,” said Musgraves, who has had her share of naysayers. “Just stay at it. It’ll work out.”
Songwriter Nicolle Galyon also got time at the microphone when Dan + Shay’s “Tequila,” which she co-wrote with Dan Smyers and Jordan Reynolds, won song of the year. Otherwise, no other women accepted an award in the three-hour telecast. In addition, no women were nominated for entertainer of the year, a fact host Reba McEntire called out in her monologue and in multiple interviews leading up to the show. (“I was very disappointed about that,” she told Stephen Colbert.) Categories including vocal duo, album, single, music video and music event of the year each had only one female nominee. The songwriter category was all men. Of the 45 singers who performed onstage, there were 32 men and 13 women.
The show offered yet another glaring spotlight on the lack of opportunities for women in country music, a much-covered topic that has received even more mainstream attention recently. The number of headlines rival the amount published about the infamous “Tomato-gate” controversy of 2015, when a radio consultant encouraged stations to play fewer female singers for higher ratings and compared women with tomatoes in the “country music salad.”
This is possibly because the situation has become impossible to ignore, and it is embarrassing for executives to gloss over the issue with typical excuses about how female listeners don’t like female singing voices, or that the lower number of women is part of a “cycle” that will eventually correct itself. (When? Who knows!) Last summer, the Tennessean put it bluntly: “3 years after ‘Tomato-gate,’ there are even fewer women on country radio.” In February, Musgraves’s sweep of the Grammys, including her win for album of the year, sparked discussions about why country radio will not play her music. Over the past few months, the “Today” show, “CBS This Morning,” NPR, “PBS NewsHour” and Boston’s WBUR station have devoted segments to the gender imbalance on country radio, streaming services, record labels and festival lineups.
A new wave of coverage kicked off Friday when the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which studies diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry, released a study titled “No country for female artists.” The topic caught the organization’s attention when the ACM nominees were released and McEntire “pointed out the lack of female representation among the candidates” while also offering the optimistic hope that country music was moving away from the “bro culture” atmosphere.
The results were bleak: Using data from Billboard’s Hot Country chart (which measures sales, radio airplay and streaming) from 2014 through 2018, the study found that despite “representing half of the U.S. population, females only comprised 16 percent of performers across five years and 500 songs.” The study looked at the year-end charts, which list the top 100 tracks.
“This translates into 5.2 male country artists to every 1 female country artist,” the study said. “Females held a smaller proportion of the top charts in country music than across the Billboard Hot 100 Year End charts for four of the five years sampled. Thus, the ‘bro culture’ is still alive and well in country music and things are not getting better.”
The study also found the average age for the most successful male solo artists was 42, while the average for the top female solo artists was 29, meaning “women are not only disadvantaged in the country market, but their age illuminates a sell by date that their male counterparts do not experience.” It looked at songwriters as well — and across 500 songs over five years, just 14 percent were written by female songwriters.
“While these findings may not be surprising, they do invite questions. Namely, how can the playing field be leveled for female artists and songwriters in country music?” the study concluded, and offered possible solutions for radio, record labels, advocacy groups, streaming and concert promoters. “The current reality in country music does not have to be the future of the genre.”
The initiative also announced it had partnered with Universal Music Group, and YouTube Music and Live Nation also want to join forces. “We clearly have a problem,” Universal Music Group Nashville President Cindy Mabe told Billboard, noting that introducing artists to listeners “has gotten increasingly harder and limiting over the last few years, especially for women and it has dramatically affected the perspective, reach and depth of our country music genre.”
One critical element is for country singers to speak up about the issue, and plenty have — though the burden more often falls on female artists, many of whom are understandably reluctant because they could face negative career repercussions. (“One of the reasons we did the gender in country music research is that there is so much fear in this space,” said one tweet from the initiative’s Twitter account. “People are terrified to speak.”)
Still, some have made their thoughts known. “I feel like I’ve been trying to speak about the lack of women on country radio for a really long time, and I don’t know the logistics of why,” Dierks Bentley, who collaborated with Brandi Carlile at the ACMs, told the Associated Press at show rehearsals. “It’s not because of the lack of talent.”
Carrie Underwood, who is taking Maddie & Tae and Runaway June on tour with her this summer for a rare all-female lineup, also spoke to the AP and put it very succinctly: “This is a male-dominated industry, and that’s never been more obvious than it has been in the past few years."