Country Women Lose Hit Magic
NASHVILLE (Billboard) – While country music has worked hard to dismiss age-old cliches about pick-up trucks and hard drinking, the music’s iron attachment to another old-fashioned notion — the men’s club — appears to be making a comeback.
After enjoying a high profile throughout the late ’90s, female country artists have become a fading presence. Chart-topping hits have been declining for at least two years, even for the format’s established female stars.
“There was a time when many of the male acts had identity issues — meaning the audience had difficulty telling one artist from another,” WUSN Chicago PD Justin Case says. “The same may be true now with females. You need either a distinctive sound or a no-brainer hit song to stand out. There is a lot of sameness out there right now.”
KMPS/KYCW Seattle PD Becky Brenner says, “We have been struggling to get a more passionate response to the female records we are playing. The audience seems to be much more passionate about the males in the format. A few years ago, they were more passionate about the females. I think the male audience is liking the grittier male acts and their music and the women are, too.”
During the first six months of this year, female artists accounted for only four of the 34 top 10 hits on the Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart. Of those four, only Dixie Chicks managed to top the chart.
While that is not a marked evolution from the first six months of last year — which saw five top 10s by female artists, including two No. 1s — it is a startling change compared with the same periods in 2000 and, especially, 1998.
The first six months of 2000 brought 10 top 10 records by female artists, three of which went to No. 1. Jumping back to 1998, women scored 14 top 10s, half of which went to No. 1.
Among this week’s top 20 country singles, there are only two by female artists (Shania Twain at No. 9 and Wynonna at No. 18). And it has been 15 months since a solo female topped the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
WHAT’S GOING ON?
So what’s going on here? Label rosters seem to have plenty of female artists. New artists are being introduced all the time, and veteran hitmakers Wynonna and Patty Loveless are back on the radio with promising new singles.
Why, then, has it become so hard for women to have hits?
Among the factors cited by country radio programmers are the fallout from the Dixie Chicks’ anti-war stance and radio’s well-documented objections to what some programmers perceived as the pop direction of the latest albums from superstars Faith Hill and Shania Twain.
More telling, programmers also cite a lack of substantive songs being recorded by women and more interesting music coming from male acts.
Gary Overton, executive VP/GM of EMI Music Publishing in Nashville, suggests another factor. “There are not enough women in decision-making roles in this hit-making process,” he says. “While there are a few female A&R people at the record labels, the number of females who are record producers, promotion and marketing execs and programmers at country radio is far overshadowed by the number of men in these positions.”
“There’s no mistaking the feminine void, that’s for sure,” WMZQ Washington, D.C., assistant PD/music director Jon Anthony says. “It could be the whole ‘crossover’ thing finally catching up to some of them. Those that made a deliberate attempt to find new fans outside of country music — Faith Hill, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain, Lee Ann Womack — seem to be those who are suffering most.
“The research has been consistent with these artists in that their gold catalog still tests very well,” Anthony continues. “But the just aren’t buying their new sound anymore.
“Martina McBride, who has repeatedly said she doesn’t want to cross over, is the undisputed queen of the format right now, because she’s still singing about real life and identifying with the average woman.
“The Dixie Chicks really could’ve been the No. 1 everything if they would just stop alienating so many fans with their bellyaching,” Anthony adds. “The feminine void wouldn’t be as vast if they weren’t putting country radio PDs in so many sticky situations.”
Meanwhile, the hot male acts have gone in the other direction, toward a more traditional sound that seems to be what the audience is craving, Anthony says.
“It feels like we’re coming back toward the core and roots of the format, and the guys are running up the score on the ladies,” he observes. “I hope history repeats itself, because the last time we had so many male superstars, in the early ’90s, country music took off.”
Keymarket Communications VP of programming Frank Bell offers another explanation. “I knew females at country radio were in trouble last year when I first saw the covers of the Faith, Shania and LeAnn Rimes CDs,” he says.
“All three images were either drenched in sweat or wearing their underwear in an attempt to fulfill some 30-year-old guy’s vision of what a pop star should look like. Did they not understand that their fan base — the people who made them popular in the first place — were adult women with a family-oriented lifestyle?
“The four biggest female country artists in recent memory are Faith, Shania, LeAnn Rimes, and the Dixie Chicks,” Bell adds. “The first three all sold their souls artistically and made slick-sounding techno-pop records in an attempt to become the next Celine Dion. The Chicks made a brilliant country album, then committed the biggest PR gaffe in the music business since Milli Vanilli.”
The lack of female hits has not gone unnoticed by the label community, according to Lyric Street Records senior VP of A&R Doug Howard. “However, it is not because we are not trying,” he says. “I must admit that we have had a couple of misses with some of our releases, but we are confident that we have truly unique and extremely talented women making relevant music for our format.”
Howard does admit concern for the fact that the country format is often guilty of embracing one type of country music “while ignoring everything else. Hopefully, we can prevent drawing lines so deep that we refuse to recognize the amazing array of country female artists in our community.”
Paige Levy, senior VP of A&R at Warner Bros. Records, is not overly concerned about a lack of hits, as long as female artists continue to sell records. “While a No. 1 record would be nice, most record companies are focused on getting enough airplay to generate sales and not necessarily throwing a lot of money at a record just to win a chart position,” she says.
“Established female artists such as Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Sara Evans and Shania Twain continue to sell good numbers without having a top-charting single.”
THE TRUTH ABOUT MEN
The quality of female repertoire is also a concern among country music insiders.
Tonya Campos, assistant PD/music director of KZLA Los Angeles, thinks “the lack of women on the charts is simply because of a lack of good songs for females. Good material seems to be the reason that male artists that were not known a few months ago now have hit songs on the charts.”
Brenner agrees that “the male artists seem to be coming up with more songs of substance and more songs with true meat. The women seem to be recording pop — fluff songs.”
Renee Bell, senior VP of A&R at RCA Label Group, adds, “I have felt since Sept. 11 that the audience wants substance. Everything that’s really been hitting has been real substance songs.”
The problem, Bell says, is that it has been hard in recent years to find such songs for women artists. For the past five years or so, she says, “a lot of what was being written in town was fluff.” That’s because prior to Sept. 11, a lot of the songs that did become hits for women were, in fact, “fluff,” and songwriters tend to emulate styles that are working.
“We at EMI advise our songwriters to write what they are compelled to write,” Overton defends. “Hence, sometimes the songs are passionate ballads, sometimes lighter fare. But I can assure you that we have never run short of passionate, meaningful songs to play for artists.”
Other programmers agree that the dominant male trend is part of a format cycle, and some agree with Bell that it’s one that might be cycling back in the near future.
Not long ago, Hill, McBride, Twain, Wynonna, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McEntire, Deana Carter, Pam Tillis and others were dominating the music scene, Cumulus Broadcasting regional operations manager Tim Roberts says. “I remember really concentrating on editing music logs to avoid too many female artists. I think that Music Row saw this, began signing male acts and started releasing more male singles, and thus we’re now in a male-dominated cycle.”
Levy — who has several new female artists in varying stages of development at Warner Bros. — counters: “I don’t believe the labels are purposefully signing fewer female artists. Producing compelling music on each artist, regardless of gender, has become increasingly difficult for A&R. We’re not going to throw out singles on new females just because we need a new female. We feel the timing is right for a new female to bust through, and, to increase our chances, we will take plenty of time searching for hits, recording and experimenting.”
Doug Montgomery, operations manager of WBCT Grand Rapids, Mich., says that despite the perfect storm that engulfed Hill, Twain and the Chicks, “if Wynonna and Martina continue with the success of their current records, Reba follows through with her plan to release a new album and the Dixie Chicks’ controversies subside, this will come back to historical norms in a few months.”
Country Women Lose Hit Magic