As artists, advocates and some gatekeepers continue to push for racial equality in country music, a new study shows a mountain of work needed to reach parity in the format.
“Redlining in Country Music: Representation in the Country Music Industry (2000-2020),” a SongData study published by Jada Watson, musicologist at the University of Ottawa, outlines two decades of radio play, award nominations and label representation for Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) in the format.
The data shows deep, longstanding disparity between radio play and awards recognition for white artists in 21st century commercial country music when compared to their BIPOC counterparts.
- BIPOC artist representation — including airplay, CMA and ACM Awards nominations, record deals and charting singles — makes up less than 4% of the commercial country music industry, according to the study.
- BIPOC artists received a 2.3% share of country radio airplay in the last 19 years. Nearly 96% of that share went to BIPOC men, with women receiving less than 3%.
- Only 19% of songs released by BIPOC artists received enough spins to peak in the top 50 of airplay charts. Zero songs by Black women reached the top 20 on country radio charts.
- Country radio played 11,484 songs from 2002-2020. Roughly 1% of those songs — or a total of 133 — were by Black artists.
- 2.3% of ACM Awards and 1.6% of CMA Awards nominees between 2000 and 2019 were people of color.
“The idea that BIPOC artists do not make country music — that they’re not participating in this space — is a myth that’s still perpetuated in this data,” Watson told The Tennessean.
Watson points to formative years of the industry — when, despite intertwining Black and white musicians in the South shaping country music, gatekeepers a century ago drew racial lines with hillbilly records (marketed for rural white listeners) and race records (songs framed for Black audiences) — as one reason for why a gaping racial imbalance exists today.
“The problem is, historically, this industry was founded along musical color lines that excluded BIPOC artists right from the beginning,” Watson said. “That white, racial framing has been doubled-down at every turn. We see that in this data still.
“The topline takeaway is less in the data that it reveals but the fact that we’re in 2021 and the systems are still being upheld 100 years later,” she added.
And women of color stand with much to gain from radio play — a game-changing factor in breaking mainstream country artists. Of the 11,484 country radio songs played from 2002 to 2020, only 23 were by Black women. Mickey Guyton’s 2015 single “Better Than You Left Me” stands as the highest-charting country song by a Black woman this century, peaking at No. 30.
Moreover, airplay for BIPOC women in 2020 typically happened in evening or overnight slots, according to the study. Watson found that nearly 44% of BIPOC women airplay happened overnight last year.
“While new songs are typically added in the overnights first, a historic practice at radio, this is a form of cultural redlining that avoids investment in Black women by relegating their songs to a daypart with no audience,” the study said.
Still, some artists of color in country music continue to make groundbreaking headway outside of radio. Guyton delivered a standout performance of her Grammy-nominated song “Black Like Me” during the 63rd annual Grammy Awards last week; next month, she’ll be the first Black woman to host the ACM Awards.
Elsewhere, Rissi Palmer earned a slot at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s “American Currents” exhibit for “Color Me Country,” an Apple Music radio show highlighting BIPOC artists. Willie Jones, a Louisiana-raised newcomer, signed to Sony Music Nashville, the same label where biracial artist Kane Brown, an established hitmaker, launched his imprint label, 1021 Entertainment.
And song representation on radio increased from 0.5% in 2002-07 to 3.4% in 2014-20 (4.8% in 2020), with Brown, Jimmie Allen and Darius Rucker accounting for much of the shift. But those numbers don’t point to progress if more artists aren’t gaining traction, Watson said.
“Yes, there has been an increase in representation; it’s marginal when you’re thinking of going from an increase of 0.5% of the airplay to 4.8% by the end of the period,” Watson said. “This is not progress. This is not diversity.”