Every Monday at the Listening Room Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., five female country artists get a chance to perform in front of an audience of 200-plus fans. The stage is small, but the opportunity to impress fans is huge.
The listening sessions are organized by Song Suffragettes. When there’s a community of women supporting each other in an industry that’s already difficult to succeed in, the journey is a lot easier, says Kalie Shorr, a frequent Song Suffragettes performer. “There’s this really great community of women ... who are hitting the ground running for each other and doing everything we can to band together,” she says.
Women in the country music industry have been struggling for years to get equitable radio play – and the situation is getting worse. In 2014, only 12 percent of solo female artists made it onto country radio charts, according to Todd Cassetty, a media executive and founder of Song Suffragettes. In 2017, he says, that percentage decreased to 10 percent. Mr. Cassetty says the Song Suffragettes listening sessions sell out almost every night, so he’s convinced that “there’s 100 percent a market” for female country artists that radio programmers are ignoring. He thinks the secret to solving this problem is with the fans: If they demand to hear more female artists, radio stations will respond.
“The crux of the issue is that women do not have the same opportunities to be heard that men do in country music,” Cassetty says.
Radio consultant Keith Hill set off a firestorm in 2015 when he said in an interview with Country Aircheck, a leading country trade publication, “The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component.... 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.”
Now dubbed “Tomato-gate,” Mr. Hill’s comments drew sharp criticism from many big-name women artists in the industry such as Martina McBride and Jennifer Nettles. But it also sparked change.
Change the Conversation, founded in 2014 by music industry executives Leslie Fram, Tracy Gershon, and Beverly Keel, holds female-artist-only listening sessions in Nashville and uses its social media platforms to publicize women artists. It also partners with Song Suffragettes to produce shows. (In a defiant move, a tomato features prominently in Change the Conversation’s logo.) Popular Nashville radio host Bobby Bones also recently announced that he is developing a radio show that will feature only female artists.
Nicole Marchesi, who works in promotions for radio company Alpha Media, also runs a blog called Next Women of Country, which is dedicated to profiling women country artists and which she created after noticing how little attention they get on the radio.
“I was on a road trip, and throughout the one-hour or two-hour road trip, I heard maybe one female song,” Ms. Marchesi says. “I was like, ‘Where are the other women in music?’... I found that there are so many more up-and-coming artists in the country music industry specifically who were never given a voice. So I was like, ‘I need to do something about this.’ ”
Sean Schnell’s 8-year-old daughter, Charlize Schnell, would always ask him to turn up the music whenever she heard a woman’s voice on the radio. “I like their voices,” Charlize says. “Because they sound like me.”
But Mr. Schnell, who is from the Canadian province of Alberta, found that female vocalists were hard to find on his favorite radio station, so he listens to country on streaming apps. Now that he’s aware that women aren’t getting equal radio play, he says he plans to focus his dollars toward platforms that will support his daughter’s, and his own, interests.
“Fans have a lot more options as to where they can go and get content,” Schnell says. “I think it should be a wake-up call for an industry that is completely consumer-driven to think about what it is that people are looking for and demanding.”