Sisters in Song: Country Women Fight Bias With Friendship, Fans’ Support
At the 2018 CMT Music Awards, Carly Pearce won Breakthrough Video of the Year for the her “Every Little Thing” music video. And when she took the stage to accept her trophy, Pearce didn’t hold back her excitement: “Oh my God!” she screamed into the microphone, before delivering a brief but emotional speech thanking the people who worked with her on the video, the fans who voted for her and the guy who inspired the song when he broke her heart.
Pearce’s journey to stardom has been by no means a straight shot to the top. During her early years as an ASCAP songwriter struggling to make a name for herself, she learned firsthand how little room the industry has for new artists -- especially women.
Six years ago, Pearce was a part of a collection of female country artists including Kelsea Ballerini, Jillian Jacqueline and a number of others. The group co-wrote and attended industry events together. “All of us were in different phases of our careers,” Ballerini recalls of that time. “To go from there, where we didn’t know what we were doing and there were sometimes tears, to now ... It just feels like you know each other’s journeys and you have each other’s backs.”
Pearce recalls those “tears” more bluntly: “We were all going around introducing ourselves,” she remembers of an events the young artists attended together. “Especially as a female artist, you wanna puff your chest out and say something good about yourself so that you feel confident in that moment. [Ballerini] had just signed her record deal and was about to put out "Love Me Like You Mean It." It got to me, because I had just lost my record deal. I was like, ‘I’m Carly Pearce ...’ and I just started sobbing.”
The problem of there being only a few "slots" for women in the country music industry -- and particularly, on country radio -- is far from new. Three years before her death in January, singer-songwriter-producer Lari White recalled that, in the ‘90s, even though some of the genre’s biggest female names were at the heights of their careers, country radio only had room for one at a time. “You wouldn’t believe how many program directors looked me in the eye and said, ‘You know, I’d love to hear your music, but we’ve already got a female act that we’re playing,’” White recalled.
"There's something irreplaceable about being on that same wavelength with another female." -- Rachel Reinert
If the sentiment sounds like a '90s relic, consider 2015's "tomatogate" uproar, during which outraged artists, executives and other industry members rallied against a metaphor that radio consultant Keith Hill employed to explain why songs by women get so little airplay. "I play great female records ... they're just not the lettuce in our salad,” Hill said at the time. “The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females." Put more simply: Hill's theory was that, since the majority of country music's fanbase is women, listeners prefer to hear male voices on the radio.
Although many opponents of Hill's statements hoped the following years would bring to country radio a sharp uptick in songs sung by women, that's not what happened. In fact, in 2017, fewer female artists received airplay than they did the year prior.
"If you look at Mediabase and look at the most-played artists of last year, within the Top 30, we actually took a step backwards," explains Leslie Fram, who serves as senior vice president of music strategy for CMT as well as the leader of the network's Next Women of Country series. "There were only two women -- two solo females [on that list]."
A June examination by Taste of Country of the decline in airplay for solo women further breaks down the data: Between 2016 and 2017, according to industry publication Country Aircheck, the percentage of songs by solo female artists played on country radio dropped from 13 percent to 10.4 percent -- even though the number of solo women who charted a song stayed consistent. In 2016, out of the 97 total artists to chart a song, 62 were solo men and 14 were solo women, with the remaining 21 falling under the category of duo or group. In 2017, the total number of charting artists dropped to 89: 59 were solo men, 16 were duos or groups and 14 were solo women. While tomatogate prompted public outcry, it did little to affect the country radio status quo in the long run.
When former Gloriana member Rachel Reinert returned to the industry as a solo artist after a hiatus from 2016 to mid-2018, she noticed a shift in the gender breakdown of the people working alongside her, in every aspect of the business. Formed in 2008, Gloriana were part of the evolution of country radio that led up to tomatogate and beyond.
"So much of what I did with Gloriana was very male-heavy. A lot of the people that we worked with and wrote with were men, and I constantly felt like the only girl in the room," Reinert explains. As a solo artist, however, "[I've worked with] a lot of female songwriters. A music video I just shot was produced by a woman and directed by a woman. It's this piece that I never even knew was missing.
"Obviously I work with men that I really respect as well," Reinert adds, "but there's something irreplaceable about being on that same wavelength with another female."
"I think that female relationships are almost the most important thing right now ... because there's power in numbers." -- Angaleena Presley
According to a January 2018 USC Annenberg Report, however, women remain a stark minority, across the genre spectrum, in several aspects of the music industry. The report finds that, of the 600 most popular songs of the past six years, 12.3 percent were written by women. In popular music across the board, women accounted for only 2 percent of producers.
For many female artists, forming friendships with other women in the business is about more than just camaraderie and mutual admiration. Without the support of the industry, collaborating with one of the few mainstream female artists in radio rotation can be one of the only ways to achieve career success. In 2000, over a decade before Pearce found that group of young women who became her support network, Angaleena Presley moved to Nashville and met fellow artist and future Pistol Annies bandmate Ashley Monroe through her publishing company. The meeting expanded into a creative network, including Miranda Lambert, that Presley now says was essential.
"My career is rooted in female friendships," she explains. "I haven't gotten any radio play. It's unfortunate that there are only a few spots for women. In terms of the business side of things, the facts are that that's true. But that doesn't mean that a female who's on a major label -- for instance, [Lambert] -- can't collaborate with a person like me, and so I kind of gain access to that world.
"I'm not the only person she's done that with. She has been a champion for so many women," Presley adds of Lambert. "I think that female relationships are almost the most important thing right now ... because there's power in numbers."
There's a longstanding -- and, nowadays, hackneyed -- trope that, while women are constantly pitted against each other by others, they really are friends. Although it's true, it's not the complete story. In fact, female camaraderie within country music fosters more than just friendship: It empowers new women in country to rise, with or without the help of the industry as a whole.
"It's about seeing that we aren't each other's competition," explains Kalie Shorr, herself a main player in the weekly all-women songwriter showcase Song Suffragettes. "You can be driven and motivated and still see that if you're in your own lane, it doesn't matter. All these girls are so singular. They do their own thing. As long as you're not trying to rip anyone off, there is no competition."
"We all wanna see each other succeed, because when one of us succeeds, it's all of us succeeding." -- Carly Pearce
Over the course of an almost two-decade-long career, Presley has wracked her brain over the question of what fans and artists can do to improve the gender disparity in the music business. "I wish I knew the answer to that question," she admits. "Believe me, I have labored over it. I have written records over it. I don't know the answer."
"The only thing I know to do is, if you love music, there's so much great music being made by females right now. Go buy it. Call your radio station and request it to be played," Presley adds. "At some point, I do feel that there will be a shift in what's happening, because we're not going anywhere, that's for sure. I guess I would ask that fans keep supporting us, the way they already are, because there's no deficit when it comes to fans."
Fram agrees that the more ways there are for fans to express their opinions, the better. "I think a lot of fans are being very vocal about requesting songs at their favorite radio stations, or posting about the artists they like, and I love that," she explains. "I mean, fans will reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram and say, 'Hey, check out this artist.' Which I think is great! You know, maybe they'll turn me on to someone I don't know about."
At the 2018 CMT Music Awards, it was the fan vote that won Pearce her award, and that made the honor even more special to the country star. "That's the other thing about the CMT Awards, is that it's fan-voted," she noted a few days later. "I got to hang and thank all those fans that did that for me."
"This is all I've ever wanted to do, and when you don't get something as quickly as you thought you would and you have to put in blood, sweat, tears and wine, it really does humble you to cherish every second," Pearce goes on to say. "Country music fans did it, and I'm never gonna stop thanking them, because they're giving me the privilege of living my dream."
As Pearce accepted her award, the community of women in country music that had supported her through the ups and downs of her career were cheering her on, too: "If you could have seen my phone ..." she shared with a laugh. "Immediately, it was Kelsea. It was RaeLynn. It was Cassadee Pope and Maren Morris -- all the girls, genuinely happy.
"We all wanna see each other succeed," she adds, "because when one of us succeeds, it's all of us succeeding."
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