Will the Women of Country Music Flourish in 2016?

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Country music produced several big moneymaking superstars in 2015, but none of them were women. To wit: in December, Zack O’Malley Greenburg of Forbes published his annual list of the world’s highest-paid musicians. Of the 30 names on the list, seven were country stars, and, boy, did they make some serious bucks. Garth Brooks came out of retirement to earn $90 million, making him the third highest earning musician of 2015 in any genre. And he had plenty of company among the men of country:

Rank Name Amount Earned
3 Garth Brooks $90 million
16 Toby Keith $53 million
19 Jason Aldean $43.5 million
20 Luke Bryan $42.5 million
21 Kenny Chesney $42 million
24 Tim McGraw $38 million
27 Florida Georgia Line $36.5 million

Those seven performers earned $345.5 million through extensive touring, a few new albums, product endorsements, and brand extensions. But where are the women superstars?

According to Billboard, country female artists are landing fewer charting singles and albums compared to men. Taylor Swift, the only female with country roots on the Forbes list, was the fourth highest earning musician in 2015, making $80 million. But her success came from touring as a cross-over artist with a pop album, 1989, which underscores the reality that women who stick to country are not dominating country music like men are. Similarly, country breakthrough star Kacey Musgraves was nowhere to be found at the 2015 CMA Festival, a big-time event hosted by the Country Music Association. She was playing the mainstream Bonnaroo Music Festival, supporting a perception that women in country need to find success elsewhere.

The Rise of Bro Country

The dearth of women superstars in country is a much-discussed topic in the industry. For example:

  • In 2014, Hollie McCay of FoxNews.com asked, “Where are the women in country music?,” noting the lack of women appearing at the three-day country music Stagecoach festival in Los Angeles. She observed that only 16 of 62 acts at the festival were women, most of whom were not headliners.
  • About a week later, Jon Caramanica of The New York Times referred to country’s “war on women” in an article about Kacey Musgraves as well as discussion of a creative renaissance among female country artists despite their recognition compared to men.

McCay of FoxNews.com blamed the rise of “bro country,” a term originated by Jody Rosen of New York magazine in 2013 to describe “music by and of the tatted, gym-toned, party-hearty young American white dude” — the kind of music that would end up making millions for the men who appear on the 2015 Forbes list. Luke Bryan, for instance, scored a huge bro country hit with the song “That’s My Kind of Night,” which features lyrics such as:

You got that sun tan skirt and boots

Waiting on you to look my way and scoot

Your little hot self over here

Girl hand me another beer, yeah!

You get the idea: beer, good times, and good-looking women. Bro country would become so popular that the style of music would gain its own Wikipedia entry along with a host of detractors and supporters. But one thing the critics and fans agree on: bro country writing is shallow and male oriented.

By contrast, female country musicians are not writing and performing radio-friendly bro country. Artists such as Cam, Kacey Musgraves and Kelsea Ballerini are taking on social issues such as same-sex marriage (in Musgrave’s case) and writing more personal, introspective songs about relationships.

Their songwriting and singing has gained them an audience and critical acclaim (observed The New York Times‘s Jon Caramanica, “Pound for pound, the quality of country music made by women is much higher than that of their male counterparts”).

But shallow bro country has sold more. As singer/songwriter Beau Davidson told FoxNews.com’s McCay, “As the songwriting has become more shallow and hooky, and at times hip-hop laced, males singing this music have become more popular, and no current female is hitting that niche. Consequently, sponsors and advertisers will flock to this trend or whatever is popular, so those acts get more airplay and headlining gigs.”

“Take Females Out” of Country Radio

Bro country’s popularity doesn’t explain everything. Garth Books, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, and Tim McGraw were popular long before bro country came along, and their styles don’t conform to the definition of the genre. (Chesney is a vocal critic of bro country.) Kate Dries’s in-depth piece for Jezebel pointed to a number of factors accounting for the lack of big-time female country acts, among them the way that the macho sounds of hip-hop and rap have influenced modern country. These forces have coalesced to marginalize women performers. You can also argue that the challenges women have faced over the past few years simply reflect a long-standing bias toward men in country. After all, according to Billboard, the percentage of women with charting singles in 2014 was the same as it was in 1991: 8 percent.

In a highly controversial interview with Country Aircheck conducted in 2015, Music Consultant Keith Hill provided a blunt assessment of the commercial fortunes of country music’s women:

If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out. The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75 percent, 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 percent. 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.

Jason Aldean, who earned $43.5 million in 2015, recently added that in addition to writing and singing songs that don’t fit the popular macho mode, too many female country singers sound the same. He told The Washington Post, “I feel like a lot of times female singers, to me, when they’re singing — and I’ll probably kick myself for saying this — a lot of times, it just seems like I can’t distinguish one from the other sometimes if I just listen to them, you know?”

I don’t know, Jason. You have to wonder how many women are being judged by their sound when a Google search for “women in country music” turns up articles such as “10 of the hottest female country artists right now” on axs.com and “Hottest women of country music” on greatamericancountry.com.

Times Are Changing

The issue may also come down to cyclical trends that are not always easy to explain. Bro country reflects a good-time Charlie vibe that might be losing its appeal already, and the always-changing tastes of country listeners appear to be tilting in favor of the kind of songs that women are writing and performing. During the second half of 2015, the women of country were defying Keith Hill’s words by finding a bigger audience with the same personal songs that were seemingly out of favor when bro country was on the rise.

For instance, Kelsea Ballerini’s “Love Me Like You Mean It” made her the first woman to top the Billboard Country Airplay chart with a debut in nearly a decade. Cam’s “Burning House,” released in June 2015, eventually made it as high as Number 2 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay list.

In a December 27 piece for Salon, Amy McCarthy wrote that women are breaking down the bro country walls in the wake of Keith Hill’s comments about women and country radio:

Cam, Maddie & Tae, Kacey Musgraves and a host of other up-and-coming female artists joined genre mainstays like Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood to elbow their way into the conversation about this perpetually male-dominated music. And most of these artists did it without the industry support – radio airplay, namely – that their male counterparts enjoyed. In doing that, they were able to forcibly change the tone of country music in a broader sense.

The bumper crop of notable new names, including Mickey Guyton, and the coming of age of artists such as Kacey Musgraves, may very mean country listeners have simply moved on from bro country and are ready for something more mature and heartfelt.

A Music Renaissance?

Ironically, the recent success of a male singer-songwriter might help country’s female singer-songwriters. Chris Stapleton, who built a career writing songs for other artists, has enjoyed chart-topping success with his 2015 album Traveller, which covers themes such as regret, loss, and hardships of road living. Rolling Stone‘s Joseph Hudak (who describes Stapleton as looking like “he’d just emerged from a backwoods hunting cabin”) writes that Traveller is “a throwback album that’s pretty much the antithesis of the shiny, party-hearty bro country that’s ruled Nashville in recent years.”

Dave Cobb, who produced Traveller, told Rolling Stone that “It feels this is a renaissance of classic country and writing about to blossom.”

If he’s right, that renaissance favors the women who have been writing and singing about these classic country themes. Noted Hudak, “If country radio has been crying out for more artists like Stapleton, it’s also been crying out for more women.”

John Esposito, CEO and president of Warner Music Nashville, told The Tennessean, “I do know there was a time in the ‘90s when guys were wondering how they were going to get in because the charts were dominated by women. We’re just as likely to find that in the next couple of years, the pendulum has swung (towards women) as we’re going to find out that there’s more traditionalism on the radio because of Chris Stapleton or William Michael Morgan.”

The time feels right for country’s female artists to move beyond critical approbation and commercial success to achieve stardom. As Kelsea Ballerini told Billboard, “I am not anti ‘bro country,’ but a women era is starting.” But will the women of country enjoy the same level of visibility and financial success as the country bros have done — and, of so, who will do it? Let’s see what happens in the weeks and months ahead.

Note: this post is the second in a series that comments on the Forbes list of top moneymakers for 2015. Here is my first post, “Meet the New Music Moguls,” published on January 4. The January 4 post contains the complete list of top 30 moneymakers.



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