Quit Claiming Mainstream Country Radio is the Only Way to Success

Tyler Childers / Kacey Musgraves / Zach Bryan

It was just over seven years ago that a radio consultant named Keith Hill took the issue of the lack of women on country radio, and sent it into hyperdrive. Later dubbed TomatoGate, Keith Hill said in an interview with the country radio trade periodical Country Aircheck, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females outTrust 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 the salad are the females.”

Keith Hill went on to say about mainstream country radio, “We’re principally a male format with a smaller female component…” and “The reason is mainstream country radio generates more quarter hours from female listeners at the rate of 70 to 75%, and women like male artists.”

Keith Hill’s quotes validated the growing concern at the time for the systemic elimination of women on the country radio format, and lit a fire behind an already burning concern that country radio was falling short on representing women in an equitable manner compared to their male counterparts—a problem that was exacerbated by multiple trends at the time, especially the rise of Bro-Country.

Before TomatoGate and most certainly after, countless initiatives were launched to try and return some semblance of gender balance to mainstream country radio. Many articles were written, organizations were formed, initiatives were enacted to support women in country music, many of which are still ongoing today. And what has been the result? Marginal gains at best. Here seven years after TomatoGate, women still only make up roughly 10% of mainstream country radio playlists, which is just slightly higher than it was in 2015 when it was about 8%. In other words, despite the incredible effort to make mainstream country radio an equal playing field for women, virtually nothing has changed.

Also in 2015, another parallel concern about mainstream country radio was smoldering. Many independent country artists and their fans felt they were being excluded from country radio too, despite a swelling interest in certain artists. The lack of women on country radio dovetailed with the concerns many in independent country also felt at the time. A few months before TomatoGate in 2015, the CEO of Sony Nashville at the time, Gary Overton, made his own controversial statements, saying in part, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist,” emphasizing just how important country radio was to making or breaking a country artist.

Gary Overton’s comments came just a week after the band Blackberry Smoke became the first independent act in the modern era to notch a #1 album on the Billboard Country Albums chart with their release Holding All The Roses. The very next week—and on the same week Gary Overton made his statements—Aaron Watson also notched a #1 album in country with The Underdog. Neither artist had received any significant mainstream country radio play, but they still were able to land #1 albums due to large fan bases rivaling or surpassing some of the up-and-comers in the mainstream that did enjoy mainstream radio support.

Soon Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Whiskey Myers, and Tyler Childers would also land #1 country albums, upstaging the mainstream’s dominance on the genre. With strong grassroots networks—including independent media, social media, festivals, touring circuits, and independent/locally-owned radio irrespective of mainstream country channels—they were able to rival, and sometimes surpass mainstream radio-supported artists.

The song “Feathered Indians” by Tyler Childers being Certified Gold by the RIAA in February of 2020 was another significant step forward for non radio-supported music. Once again reshaping the paradigm in the modern era, it opened the floodgates for independent artists receiving commercial recognition, with Childers eventually earning multiple Gold, Platinum, and now even Double Platinum singles, Cody Jinks and Whiskey Myers also earning multiple Platinum singles, as well as artists such as Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, The Avett Brothers, The Josh Abbott Band, even Wheeler Walker Jr. earning Gold Certifications. Where a #1 album on the Billboard charts could simply be the result of the luck of the draw on a weak release week, the RIAA certs codified the broad and burgeoning commercial prowess of independent music.

It was a tale of two outcomes from two separate approaches to how to deal with country radio’s insular and restrictive environment. Where the effort to support women in country focused on activism, media advocacy, organization building, all with the purpose of challenging the status quo and returning women to country radio, the independent side of country music looked to circumvent mainstream country radio entirely and focus on touring, grassroots network building, independent festival and venue circuits, video channels like GemsOnVHS and Western AF, streaming playlists, as well as Texas Regional Radio, Americana radio, and other independent radio outlets outside of the Music Row influence.

In 2015, we couldn’t imagine artists not supported by mainstream country radio selling out arenas, and minting multiple Platinum singles without the help of Music Row. Here in 2022, Tyler Childers is considered one of the top artists in the entire country music industry, based off the continued success of his 2017 album Purgatory, which continues to receive some 7 million streams per week, and is perennially in the Billboard Country Albums chart. Childers just recently celebrated Purgatory spending 100 weeks on the Billboard 200.

And now we have Zach Bryan, who has well passed all his predecessors as a non radio-supported artist upstaging the mainstream. After the release of his double album American Heartbreak, he’s arguably the #3 most popular artist in all of country music, just slightly behind Morgan Wallen and Luke Combs. Released on May 20th, American Heartbreak continues to occupy one of the Top 3 spots on the Billboard Country Albums chart, while Zach’s single “Something in the Orange” continues to be one of the most streamed songs in 2022—again, without even a semblance of support from mainstream country radio.

Meanwhile, as stated before, women and their representation on corporate country radio are in virtually the same spots that they were in 2015. That doesn’t mean there aren’t mainstream country women that have found success during this era. Carly Pearce and Lainey Wilson have both launched promising careers over the last few years, and have actually found decent support from country radio.

But the big question is why is anyone expending significant effort to diversify country radio when the format has clearly signaled for the last seven years and more that it has no interest in being assuaged from its current practices, and independent artists have proven time and time again that you don’t need radio to find success?

And this phenomenon is not restricted just to independent male artists. Kacey Musgraves became a bonafide superstar with her 2018 album Golden Hour. Though many of the media accounts at the time questioned why Kacey Musgraves received so little radio support for an album that went on to win the CMA, ACM, Grammy Country album, and Grammy all-genre Album of the Year—a.k.a. The Superfecta for a country release—in truth it was Kacey’s strategy from the beginning to circumvent country radio, spend the money that would have been used to promote radio singles that were likely to fail anyway on videos and alternative avenues of promotion—including leveraging Musgraves’ favorable standing in the press to her advantage—and find success without the country radio format.

Golden Hour ended up going Platinum, and Kacey Musgraves forged the greatest moment of her career by giving country radio the side step. Of course, this strategy was forged due to how unlikely it was that Musgraves would have any success at radio in the first place. But Kacey Musgraves and Golden Hour is a perfect illustration of how an alternative strategy to country radio can be more advantageous than trying to court the categorically unfair and restrictive format.

But still, the media and certain activists continue to try and push this idea similar to the one Sony Nashville CEO Gary Overton asserted back in 2015, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.”

In a recent article in The New Yorker focusing on country artist Hailey Whitters, the sub-headline reads, “Hailey Whitters has won critical acclaim and fans on the Internet. But radio still determines who gets to be a star.

But this assertion by the New Yorker (and others) is patently false. Nobody would claim that Kacey Musgraves is not a star. She most certainly is. So is Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, and other artists well outside of mainstream country radio’s purview. This is verified by streaming and sales numbers that rival or surpass many other artists that have received mainstream country radio play. The tour numbers for these independent artists also rival or surpass radio-supported artists in certain circumstances.

Furthermore, claiming that radio is the only avenue to success in country music is dangerous because it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy, especially for females in the country format who are being told they’re doing everything perfect, it’s just country music’s radio gatekeepers are keeping them out, as opposed to presenting them with alternatives that have been successful for now scores of country artists that nobody would question calling “stars,” while many artists have forged sustainable careers with more creative control over their music irrespective of mainstream country radio and its whims.

There is also an ugly result in discounting artists as inferior and unsuccessful just because they’re not receiving mainstream radio play, major awards, or other mainstream recognition, like an artist such as Hailey Whitters hasn’t put together a successful career, when if you judge it from a wider perspective, she most certainly has. With the way the independent side of not just country music, but all of music continues to accrue market share, there is no reason to consider artists not receiving radio play, or not signed to a major label as others, especially when critical acclaim commonly outpaces their mainstream counterparts, and sometimes commercial success does too.

There is another issue facing the ability to increase the representation of women on country radio and elsewhere that is rarely addressed in conjunction with this issue: inventory. Women only make up about 16% of the population of country artists, and tend to be less prolific than their male counterparts, meaning there’s less singles to play on radio, or to playlist on Spotify, and less women to put on a festival lineup. That is why development of up-and-coming women needs to be an imperative of the solution. But often up-and-coming country women are overshadowed by the outsized attention flowing to mainstream artists such as Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris from the media because their careers are considered more important since they are part of the mainstream. This issue was underscored recently when the team for Maren Morris indirectly cancelled a performance by up-and-coming artist Paige Davis in New Hampshire due to Maren’s “no local openers” clause.

Of course country radio is closed-minded, corrupt, sexist, and completely unfair. But for well over seven years, those looking to return some semblance of fairness to the format for women and everyone else have not only failed demonstrably, they have failed in part because they fail to recognize or address the underlying economic incentives and realities country radio has to maintaining the status quo, including some that Keith Hill cited. Advocates for change at country radio also regularly fail to recognize how it’s country music’s major labels and their regional representatives that continue to be the most influential voice in the format, not the radio stations, or even local and regional program directors themselves.

There seems to be this idea that women, as well as LGBT, and Black and Brown artists are being actively excluded from country radio under some sort of politically-driven conspiracy against them perpetrated by “gatekeepers.” But country radio would play Klezmer music on repeat if it felt that is what would make them the most money. It would play all women if it felt it was in its economic interests. It’s all a money game. Country radio is exclusively a commercial enterprise, and country singles are simply the incentive to get mainstream consumers to interface with advertising for corporate beer, full size pickup trucks, and mainstream country concerts underwritten by major labels and mega promoters such as LiveNation.

The reason academics and journalists believe there are political or exclusionary motivations behind the demographics of country radio is because they are politically motivated and driven by identitarian ideologies themselves. But corporate country radio is run by empty suits, pouring over data telling them what to play, and beholden to their major label task masters who are their biggest advertisers.

This is also the reason that using mainstream country radio studies culled from corporate playlists to attempt to represent the overall demographics of country music is inherently flawed. This demographic work by Canadian academic Jada E. Watson has been cited in countless think pieces, news stories, and other studies to highlight the lack of women and diversity on country radio, and fairly so. But these same radio studies have also been used to attempt to represent the populous of the entire country genre, once again under the premise “If you’re not on radio, you don’t exist.” This categorically obfuscates the true demographics of the country music community, and often for ulterior purposes.

Similar to saying radio play is imperative to the success of an artist’s career, it is exclusionary and irresponsible to independent country artists, alt-country artist, and the vast and omnivorous community of artists in the Americana realm—many of whom deserve to be considered “country” more than many of their major label, radio-supported counterparts—to exclude them from the community of artists that should be considered “country” just because they’re not on the radio. These artists collectively generate significant amounts of economic activity, and make up the vast majority of the artist population, while performers receiving radio play represent a tiny fraction of country’s artist population—likely less than 1%.

But organizations like the Black Music Action Coalition have recently used these mainstream country radio studies to misrepresent the entire country genre. One reason these mainstream country radio panels are published and portrayed as being representative of the entire country genre is to attempt to portray country music as more exclusionary than it actually is. But these studies actively participate in erasing the impact of women, LGBT, and Black and Brown contributors. The only thing corporate country radio playlists represent is corporate country radio, which increasingly has become niche programming catering to a small, but highly valued mainstream country lifestyle demographic appealing to specific advertisers.

What Keith Hill exposed through TomatoGate was how the corporate country radio system began working like a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you say women shouldn’t make up a significant portion of radio playlists because they can’t succeed, then you being to preordain this activity, as opposed to taking into consideration the economic viability of each radio single, and giving it an equal opportunity regardless of the gender, or any other identity factor of the performer. But saying artists can’t succeed without mainstream country radio is an self-fulfilling prophesy as well, and one just as irresponsible as excluding a single just because a woman is performing it.

It’s not that caring about the quality or outcome of mainstream country radio is completely unimportant. Concerned country fans, artists, advocates, and the media should be continuing to put pressure on the format to be more inclusive, and not just to women, LGBT and POC artists, but also to independent artists, quality songs, and songs that actually sound country. After all, despite all the rhetoric from the academic and journalism class when it comes to country radio, the most discriminated demographic on the country format continues to be artists who actually play country music.

But to continue to assert that country radio is the only way to stardom or success is a dangerous falsehood that is likely injuring the prospects of certain women in country music similar to radio’s continued exclusion of them. Meanwhile, even if country radio was able to be won over by those calling for more diversity, what would be the ultimate end? Radio across the board continues to lose market share to streaming and podcasts in trends that are only increasing and elongating over time. All the effort, attention, energy, and in some instances, money being spent to return women to country radio is all being expended upon a rapidly depreciating asset.

It’s better to set women up for a brighter future through healthier alternatives as opposed to waiting for mainstream country radio to play ball, which it has shown absolutely no desire to do. In fact, the adverse trends to diversifying mainstream country radio continue to become even more ingrained over time, as nationalized playlists, syndication, consolidation, the laying off of local staff, the shortening of playlists, and the elongation of how much time it takes for a country single to mature means even less artists and songs have opportunities to be showcased on the country radio format than seven years ago when TomatoGate occurred.

And meanwhile, on the independent side of country music, it’s like a new era. Of course there are still too few spots for too many worthy artists, and a gulf between the have’s and have not’s, including for women. But the gatekeepers are no longer the corporations that own major labels or massive radio networks. The fans are deciding who wins, who becomes a headliner, who is a middle act, and who is the hot up-and-comer, with festivals codifying these trends and attracting tens of thousands of fans for non mainstream radio-supported artists who receive millions of streams through online networks.

Again, this doesn’t mean we should completely eliminate our concern for country radio. It still serves a significant demographic, no matter how quickly it might be dwindling, and radio still represents what country music is to millions of people. But we have to stop pretending that it’s the only way to make a country music career, because it isn’t. There are many alternatives, and those alternatives are growing stronger every day. And as opposed to the women of country waiting for the next book, the next think piece, the next initiative to finally tear down the unfair system restricting their access to a dying medium, they should start taking advantage to the alternatives to mainstream radio, and the success so many have found pointing their noses in that more favorable direction.

This weekend, thousands of attendees flocked to Pasadena, California for the inaugural Palomino Festival, with Kacey Musgraves headlining, Willie Nelson also playing, independent success stories such as Jason Isbell, Zach Bryan, and the Turnpike Troubadours playing premier spots, and artists representing diversity such as Charley Crockett and Orville Peck also on the lineup.

Next weekend, Under The Big Sky Fest in Montana will commence, with massive crowds taking in headliners Cody Jinks and the Turnpike Troubadours, fast-rising women like Sierra Ferrell, and even artists that have enjoyed some mainstream radio attention such as Lainey Wilson, Midland, and Jamey Johnson.

This is country music. The thousands of people attending these events, they wouldn’t be caught dead listening to mainstream country radio. Even if they started trickling in some of their more favorite artists, or some artists already on the format began to become their favorites, they still wouldn’t listen. Why? Because they’ve found a better way to discover music, and the community that comes along with it.

Radio will always be a component to country music. This is the reason there’s a radio antenna atop the Country Music Hall of Fame rotunda, and a corresponding antenna pointing down to the center point of that hallowed space. But it’s continued failure to contemporize to current trends, to represent the best country music has to offer, and to just flat out not sound country has made it a depreciating asset, while so many alternatives centered on quality and discovery continue to define the future of music.

Stop acting like radio is the only way to create a star in country. That era ended seven years ago. And the future of country radio, if it has one, will be independent, and local, with listeners drawing personal connections with radio personalities, just like they do from their favorite independent artists, who on the whole feel more real and authentic compared to those peddled by the mainstream on pop country radio.

© 2023 Saving Country Music