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By Anastasia Iliou

What’s Happening In Country Music?

For the past few years, the lack of female country artists on the charts has been a major topic of discussion. Lately, artists like Kelsea Ballerini and
RaeLynn have had their shot at successful radio singles, but the men are still taking prominence. Why aren’t women played more on radio? It seems that this is not a matter of inequality as much as it is a matter of lyrical content and the “bro country” fad. Women can’t sing the “bro country” songs that radio wants to play. The women are singing honest songs about love, heartbreak, and world peace while the guys sing and shout about life in the country, like in Luke Bryan’s “Huntin’, Fishin’, and Lovin’ Every Day.”

In the past few weeks, true country fans and industry executives have been ecstatic as great songs from both men and women are starting to replace those boilerplate beer-drinking songs. Eric Church’s “Record Year,” a great example of what country is supposed to sound like, has had steady airplay and has sat in the Billboard country top 5 for a few weeks. Miranda Lambert’s “Vice” is at number 2, Carrie Underwood’s “Church Bells” is at number 4, and Kelsea Ballerini’s “Peter Pan” is at number 8. After that, you will not find a woman on the top charts unless you count Demi Lovato’s feature on Brad Paisley’s song “Without A Fight,” which is coming in at number 24 this week. This is some improvement on what we’ve seen in previous months, and it only continues to progress, but we’ve got a long way to go, ladies.
Florida Georgia Line   
Why Bro Country?

Why did this subgenre of country music that we joke about become so popular anyway? Most people wanted some good songs to go honky-tonkin’ to and to drink beer to, and that’s good and fine, but why has it been a trend for the past ten years; especially in the last four or five?
Luke Bryan
Bro-Country is often very pop-esque in its production style; it is meant to be danced to most of the time, which widens its audience. Artists like Thomas Rhett, Luke Bryan, and Brantley Gilbert broke in the country-music-hating Northeast in 2013-2014 because music fans on Long Island and the shores of Massachusetts and Connecticut enjoyed the beachy feel and the lyrics about alcohol. They were great summer jam songs. Those same music fans would NEVER pick up a Tim McGraw record, and they probably don’t know who George Strait is. They don’t like the twang, they don’t understand the concept of stargazing in a pickup truck, and they don’t get the fascination with snapbacks and boots. Those things are not a part of their way of life. BUT, they like drinking, dancing, and making out, and those are all lyrical elements of bro-country. Those songs don’t normally have a heavy twang, and they don’t normally include big banjo solos. Infact, a lot of them have heavy bass drops and cool guitar licks that aren’t too far off of the rock music that those same Northeasterners grew up on.

Men On Radio
Luke Bryan
Bro-country fans, especially those who don’t normally listen to country, are mostly girls ages 16-25 and guys ages 18-25. At least, that’s the majority of who’s showing up to bro-country shows in the Northeast. Girls ages 16-25 are much more likely to attend the live show of a young, attractive, male artist who is singing about taking a girl out and getting her drunk than a female artist singing about being taken out and getting drunk. They want to imagine a guy singing about them, and they want to scream and squeal at concerts because that attractive male artist is pelvic thrusting on stage (see: Luke Bryan twerking). Men ages 18-25 are most likely in college and looking for a show where they can go to meet those girls who want guys to sing about getting them drunk and then they want to do the things that those male artists are singing about.

At the end of the day, the music in
dustry is all about the live show. If it weren’t for live shows, theFlorida Georgia Linere would be no music industry. Plus, artists barely make a dime off of record sales in 2016. All of their income comes from ticket and merch sales. Radio is what gets those fans to the shows, because believe it or not, radio is still the number one way that people discover music. Therefore, men singing about beer and girls are way more likely to receive airplay than women singing about, well, anything. It’s a formula that works, and it has brought in billions of dollars to the ever-changing industry that we call music.

As album sales continue to decline, major executives are unfortunately very willing to sacrifice good songs to publish bro-country instead and bring in money and success to their businesses. Thus, we have radio stations that are over-saturated with the likes of Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line (the biggest culprits), and Jason Aldean.
Kelsea Ballerini
Women On Radio

There are several cases that the industry as a whole has been confused about. Cassadee Pope is a name that most music listeners are familiar with. Many knew hCassadee Popeer from her very early days as lead singer of the pop-punk band Hey Monday, but she took the country world by storm after winning The Voice under Blake Shelton’s guidance. She gained countless fans, her YouTube views skyrocketed, but she could not catch a break on radio. Even when her singles played, they didn’t become part of the regular circuit because listeners weren’t paying attention. They were more concerned with whatever Florida Georgia Line song was playing on the next station over. Cassadee’s biggest break on radio was her duet with Chris Young, “Think Of You.”

Rainey Qualley is a great example of a female country artist who wasn’t able to break into the market at all. Her single “Me and Johnny Cash” made a decent splash overseas and in the Nashville/Southeast market, but she was a woman singing about things more important thaRainey Qualleyn partying in a time when the world was not in the mood for that. Rainey has recently moved to L.A. and switched over to pop, where she can actually gain some momentum as a female artist called “Rainsford.” Hear the difference between her country style and her new single.

Kacey Musgraves is a special case where a good deal of her songs CAN’T be played on radio because of their controversial lyrical content. Others are almost TOO country for the modern sound that many radio listeners want.  As a songwriter and artist, it doesn’t seem like Kacey is too upset by that logic. She is easily defined as a successful artist, and she is able to sell albums and climb the Billboard charts, even without radio airplay, because Kacey’s fans aren’t listening to radio. They’re the fans who know that what they love can’t be found on radio. They buy CDs and digital downloads instead.

Cassadee Pope couldn’t have said it better than she did in an interview with Forbes, “I think the biggest challenge is the subject matter in our songs. We really, we’re honest. Not to say that guys aren’t. But I think when we sing about vulnerability, it can be taken as weakness. When men sing about vulnerability it’s, “’Aw, he’s so sweet.’ I think we don’t get as much leverage when we sing about that kind of stuff, so ther
e’s a certain pressure to sing about empowerment.”

Cassadee PopeThe Sacrifice of Kelsea Ballerini

The case of Kelsea Ballerini is unique because she HAS gotten a healthy dose of airplay. The catch is that her songs are basically the girl version of bro-country. She is a beautiful, talented artist that is capable of SO MUCH MORE, but she gave into the demands of the industry, which is probably a choice that she doesn’t regret given the success that she’s had. However, it is unfortunate that her songs have to be on a shallower level, lyrically. She had to sacrifice her shot at being called most talented so she could be called most successful.
Maren Morris
Women Who SHOULD Be On Radio

Maren Morris has been extremely successful in the music industry community, but hasn’t broken to the mainstream audience as well as she was expected to because even her single “My Church” was overtaken by bro-country on radio.

Ruthie Collins
Labels are trying everyday to find the next big female act, because there is a huge hole in the industry where the next big break in the style of Taylor Swift’s early career can come along, but even Ashley Campbell, who is Glen Campbell’s daughter for crying out loud, can’t find her way in. Neither can Clare Dunn, Ruthie Collins, or any other woman who’s trying to make it.

Ruthie Collins’ latest video for “Dear Dolly” talks about her fighting spirit as she tries to make it in the industry as a girl.

Billboard’s Study

About a year ago, Billboard changed the discussion by pointing out that women have ALWAYS lagged behind men in terms of successful singles. However, there was a 16% peak in the early 2000’s that excited everyone and made the sudden decline with the outbreak of bro-country seem even more drastic than it was.

Song content is not the only issue here, if even in the 90s, when modern country was at its peak, women were simply not heard on radio. Billboard writer Glenn Peoples says that female country songs are pitched to radio a lot less often than men, which makes sense. Why would a successful song plugger send female songs to radio, knowing that they historically have not been as successful as male songs? It’s a vicious cycle.

Maren MorrisThe fact is, men are picked out of a lineup of attractive men, handed a country “costume” and a few papers to sign, and before they know it they’re singing in front of thousands. Women climb the ladder slowly, and most often start out as songwriters. Songwriter Natalie Hemby, who has had chart-topping hits for Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town and more, says “You know where you’ll find the most awesome female artists in Nashville? Most of ‘em are songwriters.”

Now What?

The only way there will ever be an industry balance is if listeners go back to choosing good songs over danceable songs. Cam’s BRILLIANT “Burning House” song was on radio for awhile, but the song is a ballad. It is not easy for a ballad to stay on the radio circuit for long.

There is no shortage of GOOD female country acts, and there never will be. There is only a shortage of listeners who are looking for good female country acts, and industry executives know that. It is their job to know their audience and pitch to their audience. Things are looking up, and this might change soon, but their audience, at least for now, wants bro-country.

*A group of female artists and songwriters in Nashville who call themselves the Song Suffragettes are fighting to bring women into the industry, using their "Let The Girls Play!" motto.  Read their open letter here. * / Issue 185 - September 0900
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