Mickey Guyton has a Best Country Solo Performance nomination and a performance slot at Sunday’s (March 14) Grammy Awards. Rissi Palmer and rising star Tiera host shows on the Apple Music Country radio platform. Multiple artists of color are nominated at the 2021 ACM Awards, which Guyton will co-host. And yet, as a new study shows, non-white artists remain vastly underrepresented on country radio and major Nashville labels.
Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020), released by SongData’s Dr. Jada Watson on Friday (March 12), examines the radio airplay and other representation of country artists of color from the start of the new millennium through 2020. Watson analyzed two decades’ worth of country radio airplay data for the study, as well as the lists of artists signed to Nashville’s three major labels (Sony, Universal and Warner) and nominated at the CMA and ACM Awards.
Watson’s study reveals that, during the focus time period, only 3.2 percent of the artists signed to Music City’s major labels were artists of color, and only 0.9 percent were women. Artists of color only received 2.3 percent of total country radio airplay during the period of the study, all but 2.7 percent of which was for songs by men. Although representation for these artists has increased marginally and slowly — artists of color accounted for 0.5 percent of the songs played on country radio and 0.3 percent of total country radio airplay in 2002-2007, but accounted for 3.7 percent of the songs played and 4.8 percent of total airplay in 2014-2020 — the increase has only benefited male artists (and, with the exception of Lil Nas X, straight male artists at that).
“Taken together, this data tells part of the story about the ways in which the industry has privileged white artists and denied opportunity to BIPOC artists,” Watson writes at the start of the study. “The key findings for this study reveal that at every level of analysis — percentage of songs played, of airplay, of charting songs, of artists signed to major labels, and of award nominations — BIPOC artists make up less than 4.0 percent of the commercial country music industry.”
In fact, Watson points out, most of the airplay, chart achievements and awards nominations for artists of color can be traced to three male artists of color, whom she does not name (Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen are three good guesses, though). Female artists of color, meanwhile, have had their music largely played only during evening and overnight hours, which results in less recognition among listeners, in turn leading to lower peak chart positions (if their songs chart at all) and fewer opportunities to establish themselves among the mainstream.
“The results for representation on country format radio suggest a racial hierarchy that exists within the industry and considers the deep connections between each facet of the industry,” Watson writes. “Radio airplay remains an integral component of the development of an artist’s career, including the promotional support received from a label and eligibility for awards by the two main trade organizations. This data suggests that the lack of representation on airplay does not just impact the trajectory of an individual artist, it also impacts the careers of those around them and of future artists.”
Perhaps most jarring is Watson’s data specifically pertaining to 2020, the year in which the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by Minneapolis, Minn., police, led to a reckoning with racism in the United States as a whole. That year specifically, artists of color received 7.95 percent of country radio spins — but, again, almost all of that airplay went to straight men.
“What emerges throughout this report is a deep form of cultural redlining that relegates the BIPOC artists — especially women — and their music to the margins of the industry. Redlining is made visible here through each facet of the industry,” Watson explains on Twitter. “The historic exclusion of BIPOC artists means that there is no ‘data’ to support the development of artistic careers of these artists in country music … Instead of seeing their absence from the list of potentially eligible artists as a sign of a problem, the data gap has served instead to justify and maintain institutional practices.”
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