The streaming era has seen a growing discussion of diversity within the country music world. The conversation has often focused on gender: Martina McBride criticising Spotify’s recommendation algorithms in 2019 for example, or a SongData study the same year showing how few women found their way onto the US year-end country airplay radio charts.
Now a report from the Black Music Action Coalition is training the lens on another aspect of diversity in country music: race. It builds on another SongData report, 2021’s ‘Redlining in Country Music‘ with some stats showing the challenges for non-white artists in getting signed and played on country radio.
“Out of 411 acts signed to the three major Nashville labels (Sony Nashville, Warner, and UMG) between 2000 – 2020, 15% of the acts in that period were Black. 3.2% of the acts in that period were BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and People of Color]. .5% of the acts in that period were biracial,” explains the report, adding that over 19 years and 11,484 unique songs played on country radio 13 Black artists were represented and only 3 Black female artists or groups”.
The report wants to tackle assumptions that “there isn’t enough Black talent, there isn’t a Black country audience, and the existing country core won’t embrace Black acts” and is training its criticism squarely on the country industry and its representative body the CMA.
“When data has included Black listeners, it has not only consistently pointed to a Black audience, but a growing one,” it claims, noting that “Lil’ Nas X’s backdoor ambush of the country charts proved, quickly, that there’s room for country to be a bigger tent”.
It also suggests that as more country fans move to streaming services, it will “force the heavily radio-driven format to acknowledge the underrepresented segment of the demo and the artists boxed out of traditional Music Row avenues.”
There is plenty more in the report. “Music Row can no longer be considered an outlier in conversations about equality, equity, community, responsibility, accountability and justice. 100 years can’t be unraveled overnight, but if country music institutions want to shake the stigma of racism and bias, they’ll need to acknowledge they do exist, and denounce them, and take actions that counter them.”
Work is underway. In September 2021, the CMA outlined some of its plans to “cultivate a framework for a more diverse, equitable and inclusive ecosystem”. It also commissioned a study exploring ‘Country Music’s Multicultural Opportunity‘ that was published later that year, and just last week appointed diversity, equity and inclusion expert Mia McNeal as its senior director, industry relations & inclusion.
As in the wider music industry, these are positive steps along the (New Town?) road. Organisations like the Black Music Action Coalition and Color of Change, which has also criticised the CMA in recent times, are playing an important part in pushing this. So are the people within the country industry who are excited about this process rather than defensive.
It’s a coalition that is already bringing change and preparing to tackle more challenges ahead, and unlock more opportunities for artists of all kinds within the country world.
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