Editor’s note: Dr. Jada Watson is a professor at the University of Ottawa. She leads the research endeavor The SongData Project, which examines what data about music and musicians can tell us about the evolution of popular music.
It’s business as usual in the country music industry. After two years of increased discussion of “diversity” in the Nashville-centered business, Billboard’s Country Airplay chart reveals an increase in songs by white artists from an annual average of 91 percent between 2018 and 2021 to 94 percent in 2022. The only song by a solo Black artist to chart on Country Airplay last year was Jimmie Allen’s “Down Home,” which peaked at No. 2 on Dec. 24 after 43 weeks on the chart and landed at 58 on the Year-End list published in December. In fact, Allen’s song appeared only on the Year-End Airplay chart, making “Down Home” the only song by a Black artist to register on one of Billboard’s four singles-oriented Year-Ends. The same is true for Mexican American artist Frank Ray, whose “Country’d Look Good on You” peaked at No. 17 in September, finishing the year at No. 54 on the Year-End Airplay chart.
Singles by white women have likewise decreased on the chart, dropping from a decade high of 18 percent in 2020 down to 14 percent in 2022. The only song by a female artist to peak in the Top 10 of the Year-End charts was Ingrid Andress’ cut “Wishful Drinking,” which features Sam Hunt and appeared on the Airplay list.
No matter which way the data are examined on the charts from last year, the drop in representation of Black artists and white women — not to mention the continued absence of women of color — suggests this is an industry uninterested in change.
Charts might seem benign and equitable — the simple “tallying” of various forms of data — but they are dictated by the industry’s structural configuration and have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Chart data influences how labels sign, promote and support artists, feeding back into the system from which they emerged, ultimately dictating who “belongs” in an industry.
The history of the recorded music industry is well-known. As Karl Hagstrom Miller illustrates in his book Segregating Sound, the popular music industry developed in the 1920s along a musical color line that echoed Jim Crow-era laws. Even though Black and white musicians played and listened to the same music, record executives segregated their recordings, capturing the music of white artists on “hillbilly records” and of Black artists on “race records,” marketing records from these labels to white and Black communities respectively. A business model was born, and the data generated from the sales of these records initiated mechanisms that ensured the persistence of the industry’s structure. Although these specific marketing categories are no longer used today — replaced with what we now call “genre” labels of country and R&B by 1950 — this racial segregation (initiated and maintained through sales data) has remained central to the inner functioning of the industry.
As the industry developed through the 20th century, racialized genre structure became embedded in every facet of the industry responsible for production (labels, publishers) and distribution (radio, charts) of records, and for the various prizes and honors awarded to artists for their work. Data generated by and transferred between each of these industry spheres further cemented the industry’s business model.
Radio developed in parallel to — and in the same racially segregated structure of — the industry and became the primary means of distributing recorded music. This was a mutually beneficial relationship: Labels gained a means to advertise and promote their records, and radio had material to program. Repeated radio airplay helped introduce new artists and expand their fan base, leading to record sales and generating opportunities within the industry.
Data tracking airplay and sales were measured and ranked on weekly charts. Unsurprisingly, industry charts replicated the genre structure established by the recording industry. In 1958, Billboard launched three weekly singles charts — Country & Western, Rhythm & Blues and the all-genre (or “mainstream”) Hot 100 — three poles around which most popular music circulated since the early days of the industry, and continues to circulate today. Until 1990, the Country and R&B charts were tabulated through a hybrid formula that blended radio airplay and sales to determine weekly rankings.
But with the adoption of SoundScan technologies in 1990, these and other genre charts were tabulated by radio airplay alone, tightening the relationship between radio and labels and reducing opportunities for songs lacking radio support. Over the past decade Billboard has restructured its charts, maintaining an Airplay chart for each genre while creating two new charts: Digital Songs (measuring sales) and Streaming Songs. The magazine also developed a suite of genre-specific “Hot” charts that mingle airplay, sales and streaming data in an effort to reflect how audiences access music today.
The country music industry became one tentpole of this racially segregated structure, centralizing inNashville in the 1950s through the development of a network of recording studios, record labels and publishing houses. As Diane Pecknold outlines in her foundational text The Selling Sound, the Country Music Association, launched in 1958, became the chief architect in rebranding and modernizing the image of country music, while at the same time building its business model around radio and charts. In the 1950s, radio was shifting away from the eclectic block programming of varied stylistic offerings toward a Top 40 model based around tighter playlists of a single genre — something we’re familiar with today. The CMA used ratings data to identify struggling stations, offering them support of an association broadcast member to guide them through the process of becoming a dedicated country station.
By the late 1960s, country radio had been cemented at the center of the industry’s business model, with Billboard’s Hot Country Singles chart capturing consumption of recorded music. Analysis of representation on the charts since 1958 reveals combined racial and gendered hierarchy within the industry. Since 1958, 94.4 percent of the songs appearing on the long-running Billboard chart are by white artists: 66.8 percent by white men, 21.7 percent by white women and 5.9 percent by male-female collaborations. Songs by Black artists (1.1 percent) — especially women (0.1 percent) — are nearly absent from this historic chart. And while a handful of men of color have had songs peak within the top 10 positions of industry charts, Linda Martell’s “Color Him Father” remains the highest charting song by a Black woman (No. 22 in 1969) and Ojibwe artist Crystal Shawanda’s “You Can Let Go” is the highest by an Indigenous artist (No. 19 in 2008). A Black, Indigenous, Latina or Hispanic woman has not charted since 2015.
These statistics are not altogether surprising. But they reveal the depth to which segregating practices persist in the 21st century, when Black and brown artists continue to receive just 2.2 percent of the country radio format airplay (0.06 percent of which is songs by Black women).
While streaming is becoming increasingly important in the broader popular music industry, the weekly and Year-End charts reveal considerable racial and gender inequity (not to mention homogeneity, when 16 percent of the top 50 songs streamed are by one artist, Morgan Wallen). Though it was thought that streaming could level the playing field, creating a path for independent artists to bypass gatekeepers and build a fan base, label-signed artists continue to dominate. But when streaming services offer recommendations, their algorithms study past data — which are influenced by patterns within the industry. Both editorial playlists and recommender systems, then, just reflect the country industry (i.e., radio) back to users — defaulting white and male, creating a feedback loop.
Data also play a significant role in determining industry awards. Chart rankings, radio airplay, digital media, live concert ticket sales, television and film appearances, songwriting credentials and contributions to the industry are all taken either separately or together as criteria for which an artist may be deemed eligible for nomination. But how are the contributions of artists who do not have this type of support to be weighed in comparison to the white men and (to a lesser extent) women who have access to opportunities within the industry?
The context of award criteria is particularly troubling when changes narrow the pool of eligible candidates. This is the case with the CMA’s May 2020 revision of eligibility criteria for Single of the Year category. Instead of reaching the Top 50 of the industry’s charts, the new criterion requires that a song reach the Top 10 of these charts to be eligible for consideration. This puts an extra burden on women who are Black, Indigenous or other people of color, who have historically been disadvantaged by the industry. Under this new criterion, not a single Black or brown woman in the industry’s history would have been eligible for a CMA nomination in this category. The chart results for 2022 show that if these criteria remain, Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown would be eligible for nomination for CMA’s Single of the Year category in 2023, but no Black or brown woman would be — and are unlikely to be eligible for any award that requires chart activity.
Income, resources, opportunity and awards are all linked to the support that an artist receives as a result of the data generated through the industry’s charts (radio, sales, streaming) on country radio. Not only does data impact the ways in which Nashville labels support and promote the handful of nonwhite artists they’ve signed, but it also influences decision-making surrounding signing new artists to their rosters and contributes to the enduring whiteness in the broader music community (songwriters, touring and studio musicians, and more). The recent signings of The War and Treaty (UMG), Madeline Edwards and Breland (both to Warner Music Nashville) and Willie Jones (Sony Music Nashville) suggest positive signs of change. But this must also be met with changes in promotional support, programming at radio, and opportunities for exposure within the industry if they are to succeed in a business model centered on whiteness.
“There is a tendency to build on what has been happening,” says Amanda Marie Martínez, a country music scholar who is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University. We recently spoke on the phone. “It’s a business where the objective is to make money, and the business is continuing to work well. There’s no incentive to deviate because it works.” The business model becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: encouraging investment in white men because white men have historically provided financial advantages.
Data is destiny, as data scientist and code poet Joy Buolamwini has stated. The industry uses data to track consumption, to uncover patterns and trends, to make business decisions. But while the industry is forward-looking, the data they use reflects history. Rather than seeing the absence of BIPOC artists on charts as indicative of a systemic problem, the industry uses the lack of data proving BIPOC artists’ commercial viability to justify and maintain institutional practices. The past dwells within this data, and the 2022 charts reveal no sign of change.