3 years after 'Tomato-gate,' there are even fewer women on country radio

Cindy Watts
The Tennessean
View Comments
The Song Suffragettes group was created to give talented, up-and-coming female country singers and songwriters a place to perform. Its first anniversary celebration got a little feisty when the “tomatoes” get a hold of some real tomatoes. Back row: Alex Masters, Brit Willson, Morgan Dawson, Julia Cole, Maddy Newton and Mignon Grabois; front row: Kalie Shorr, Baylor Wilson, Natalie Stovall, Karli Chayne, Ruthie Collins and Ella Mae Bowen.

Three years have passed since "Tomato-gate" — an uproar sparked by radio consultant Keith Hill, who compared female country artists to tomatoes in a salad.

"If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out," he said in 2015. "I play great female records ... 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."

Hill cited research showing music created by women reflected 19 percent of songs played on country radio. 

The remarks sparked a proverbial food fight between music makers and country radio. For some, the flap sparked hope that bringing the issue to the surface would yield progress. 

It hasn't. In fact, by some metrics, women have lost ground in country music.

The percentage of purely female country songs charted by Country Aircheck dropped to 10.4 percent last year, down from 13 percent in 2016.

MORE ON TOMATO-GATE:  Tomato-gate galvanizes women in country music

While some cite the accomplishments of rising stars like Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris as evidence the situation is improving, their success is largely an anomaly, experts said. 

“I think the trap that we get into in this town is that we see something like Maren happen that we’re all super excited about … and she wins a Grammy and she’s touted heavily on the Billboard Awards and we’re all like, ‘Look at us. Females are doing better,’ ” longtime music industry executive Todd Cassetty said. “That’s one female.”

More:Maren Morris gets presented with certified gold album

The issue isn’t limited to country music. A report from the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative titled “Inclusion in the Recording Studio?” revealed that only 22.4 percent of all performers across the 600 most popular all-genre songs from 2012 to 2017 were female. In addition, 2017 represented a six-year low, with females comprising only 16.8 percent of popular artists on the top charts. 

The report also showed that female songwriters and producers are even more in the minority. Only 12.3 percent of songwriters of the 600 most popular songs of the last six years were women and 2 percent of producers across 300 songs were female. The statistic translates into 1 female for every 49 males.

“The voices of women are missing from popular music,” USC professor Stacy L. Smith said in a statement. “This is another example of what we see across the ecosystem of entertainment: Women are pushed to the margins or excluded from the creative process.”

Martina McBride and husband John McBride show off their tomato T-shirts.

But they are pushing back. In the country genre, Hill's remarks inspired more people to speak up, get involved and search for ideas to create gender equality in country music.

“His comments were important because it confirmed there was a problem,” said Beverly Keel, chairperson of Middle Tennessee State University's recording industry department. “It got national attention so it couldn’t be denied. It was a real turning point, and it really galvanized women on Music Row.” 

Pushing for change

Keel along with Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music and talent, and artist manager Tracy Gershon founded Change the Conversation, a group that fights gender inequality in the music industry, in the months before Hill’s tomato comparison. Soon after his comments, attendance at their meetings spiked. 

In addition, Cassetty created Song Suffragettes to give talented, up-and-coming female country singers and songwriters a place to perform. Set for 6 p.m. Mondays at The Listening Room Cafe, the curated all-female singer-songwriter event evolved into the largest weekly show at the venue. 

“We’re giving (women) a place to be and grow and commiserate,” Cassetty said. “We’ve created a community that is making an impact in this town. It’s not reflected at radio, but we’re trying to help the best young talent we can find get a leg up and be heard. Is there ever going to be 50/50 parity? Probably not. Should there be? Probably so. But can we make improvements in the meantime? Definitely.”

Kalie Shorr sings one of her female-empowering tunes during a Song Suffragettes show at Commodore Grille as part of the Tin Pan South songwriters festival.

Since its inception, nine women involved with Song Suffragettes — including Ballerini and Carly Pearce — signed record deals and 37 women received publishing deals.

"It's a lot like walking on ice in heels," said country newcomer Kalie Shorr. "It’s such an interesting time to be coming up as a girl, but frustrating because there’s a lot of double standards between men and women. A lot of people are blind to it."

Still, the issue persists 

The gender imbalance has remained prevalent in recent years. In 2014, solo female artists had three of the 60 songs on country radio’s year-end most-heard songs list. In 2015, there were six solo female songs on the list. In 2016, three of the top 30 most played acts on country radio were solo female — Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Kelsea Ballerini. In 2017, Maren Morris joined the aforementioned ladies in the Top 30 on the year-end list. Newcomer Carly Pearce, who had a No. 1 song with "Every Little Thing," was at 38. 

The disparity means that there’s an absence of female points of view in music. Cassetty wants his daughters to hear empowering songs delivered from a voice that sounds like their own, not just thin lines about women wearing cutoffs and riding in trucks. 

“Music is an important force in shaping popular culture, which should reflect who we are as a society,” said Pete Fisher, CEO of the Academy of Country Music. The ACM hosted a Change the Conversation event featuring Cam leading up to its April awards show. “It’s important for men and women to hear female voices on the radio and hear or read about their work as a musician, engineer or producer, to name a few. When all points of view get together to discuss, we learn and achieve a deeper level of understanding, and from that learning comes action.”

'Everyone wants more female voices on the radio'

A radio executive who spoke on background explained that female songs often don’t test well, which financially impacts their bottom line. However, they also conceded that such testing can be faulty because people often answer survey questions in ways that don’t reflect their listening habits. A presentation by Erin Crawford, senior vice president of Nielsen Entertainment and general manager of Nielsen Music, showed that female artists had more marketability than men, indicating that women are more likely to buy products touted by other women. The presentation debunks popular claims that females — a prime target of country radio — don’t respond favorably to other women.

“With all of the great female empowerment movements that are happening right now, women need to vote for other women,” said Big Machine Label Group founder and CEO Scott Borchetta. Borchetta's label is behind Pearce. “You have a format in country that is predominantly female listenership and they predominantly research male voices better than female voices. As women understand this more, it’s a time to rally. Everyone wants more female voices on the radio.”

Popular syndicated country radio personality and “American Idol” mentor Bobby Bones said he is tired of waiting for slow-moving change. This week he decided to act. Bones is preparing to launch a national radio show on more than 100 stations featuring only females.

“I’ll be really obnoxious about it and just cram it down the radio station,” Bones said. “I’m just tired of it. I can take acts on the road. I can play the music. But people aren’t embracing things, and they are embracing other things too fast. They’re just not giving females a chance. I’m going to take a square peg and shove it into a round hole until it’s also round. It’s important for fairness. I want everybody to have an equal shot.”

When Carly Pearce won the fan-voted Breakthrough Video of the Year trophy Wednesday night at the CMT Music Awards, the previous year’s winner, Lauren Alaina, presented her with the trophy. Pearce views the back-to-back female winners as evidence of an upward trajectory. 

“I feel so loved,” said Pearce, who won for “Every Little Thing.” “We’re all in a group chat, Maren and Kelsea and all of these girls. They’re all like, ‘We’re crying, we’re so proud of you.’ The girls are here.”

Cam, who is one of country music’s most outspoken advocates for gender equality, explained: “It isn’t about changing the conversation. It’s about joining it.”

Reach Cindy Watts at or 615-664-2227 and on Twitter @CindyNWatts.

Change the Conversation

What: Change the Conversation: Unplugged featuring Mickey Guyton, Emily West, Maggie Rose, Natalie Stovall and Leah Turner. 

When: 12 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Listening Room Cafe,  618 Fourth Ave. S.

Admission: Free

Song Suffragettes

What:4th anniversary Song Suffragettes show featuring a Change the Conversation panel and two songwriter rounds with singer-songwriters including Tegan Marie, Kalie Shorr, Kelliegh Bannen and Erin Enderlin

When: 6:15 p.m. Monday

Where: Analog at Hutton Hotel, 1808 West End Ave.

Admission: $10

View Comments