An Interview with Jada E. Watson

In April of this year, Jada E. Watson published a large-scale Report on Gender Representation on Country Music Radio. The report, published in consultation with WOMAN Nashville, was groundbreaking and painted a fascinating picture of exactly what has been happening on the airwaves – you can read the report here https://songdata.ca/2019/04/20/new-study-gender-representation-on-country-music-radio/

This week we’ve been lucky enough to chat to Jada about the report and the industry, including how she first came to research country music, answers to key questions we are regularly asked, the impact ‘The Highwomen‘ are having on the genre and much more.

Tell us a bit about how you got into both country music but also Gender Representation?

I have been researching country music since about 2006; my first project centered on the Dixie Chicks’ response to the 2003 boycott of their music. I worked on this project in the context of a graduate seminar, and then continued to work on it following completion of the class. The project looked at the ways in which their music video for “Not Ready to Make Nice” functioned as a critique of oppressive institutional power and created a platform for their response. This became my first published article in 2010 and I find that I am increasingly turning back to that first study as an issue to reflect on as I grapple with what’s going on in the culture today.

Issues related to gender, sexuality and identity have always played a big role in my research, but I didn’t turn to gender representation (as in, the place of female artists within the genre) until late 2015 – shortly after TomatoGate.

Was there a particular moment that pushed you towards your study, anything in particular that made you think?

A lot of what I do now can be traced back to TomatoGate and the wave of critical journalism that followed. The writing of Beverly Keel, Melinda Newman, Jewly Hight, Marissa Moss and Emily Yahr started to probe some of the issues that they were seeing from their close proximity to the artists, and their work became essential resources
for further investigation. But as I began researching issues of representation, I was also really attuned to the impact that the October 2012 change in methodology had on the Hot Country Songs chart. I became engrossed in how that new methodology worked and how it impacted genre cultures. When I turned to airplay data, WOMAN Nashville’s work – which can be read on their website and by following them on Twitter – has invaluable. Anyone interested in issues of representation across every facet of the industry should be following them on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. They have published some important pieces on their website that have outlined the history of some of the key issues underlying this discussion.

You’ve spoken out too on Twitter about your thoughts on the C2C Lineup here in the UK – do you think this is a direct result of the state of affairs in the US?

I think that there is a strong correlation between the C2C lineup and the imbalance that we are seeing in the USA (and in Canada). The lack of female artists on the lineup shows us the results of gender-based programming. I think it’s important to consider the cyclic relationship that emerges between actors within a genre’s ecosystem:
changes in one sphere of the genre will, over time, impact other spaces. A lack of radio airplay deters labels and publishers from investing in and writing for women, over time this results in a reduction of opportunities for female artists on tours and festival lineups, and limits the possibilities of merchandising and fan clubs. This create a feedback loop that gradually eliminates opportunities for women. We are seeing this play out on festival lineups around the world today – C2C is certainly not the only festival to have gender imbalance in its lineup.

There are a series of questions we are regularly asked when we raise concerns about a line up. Can we ask you to come up with your response to the following replies we regularly receive? 

I regularly receive these questions – or variations of them – as well.

1) But it shouldn’t be about gender, it should be about talent!

Female artists are not denied opportunities because they lack talent; they are denied opportunities in the industry because there is a false belief that they are not financially viable. If all artists had equal access to opportunity and resources, then we could have an honest discussion about talent. Brandi Carlile recently captured this
best in an interview with Marissa Moss when she stated “inequality prevents merit-based success.”

2) It’s simply that there are more male artists out there isn’t it?

This line of questioning is understandable for those that are only listening to commercial country radio: based on radio airplay, audiences would presume that there are only a handful of women participating in the genre. But commercial country radio plays only artists signed to major record labels, and there is also an imbalance of female artists on label rosters.

So this is “yes and no” answer: yes, there are more male artists active on commercial country radio because there are more male artists than female artists signed to labels. But overall, no, there are not more male artists active in the genre. There are likely just as many women building careers in the genre as there are men, they just have
significant barriers that they have to work against for audiences to find their music.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it assumes that female artists are afforded the same opportunities as male artists and that a female artists can walk into a label and sign a deal at the same rate as a male artist. But just like radio, where there are only a limited number of spots on a station playlist for female artists, there are
only a limited number of spots for female artists on label and publishing rosters. Radio playlists and labels rosters – and, I would add, streaming services – completely alter the public’s perception of who is contributing to country music culture.

3) But we don’t know that the organisers didn’t ask more female artists to feature on the line up?

True, we don’t know that the organisers didn’t ask more women to participate in the festival. But given the ever-increasing popularity of country music in Europe – especially of the genre’s female artists who have been very widely embraced and toured successfully there – it seems unlikely that female artists would turn down the
opportunity to participate in the festival and not seek out international exposure.

What do you think is next to ensure this level of female representation changes – if there is one big move that could change the tide?

The entire industry needs to come together to make a concerted change. WOMAN Nashville and I outlined some of our thoughts in the conclusion of the April 2019 report, but ultimately radio needs to increase the number of spins it grants to female artists and create space for new women on its playlists; labels need to sign more women and promote and support then with the same
commitment, intensity and resources as male artists; and promoters and presenters need to actively recruit female artists for the lineups.Male artists need to play a part in this discussion: they need to use their platform to advocate for their female colleagues and bring them out on tour with them. And more importantly: audiences need to continue to support, champion, and request female artists.

Obviously, the percentage of female plays on country radio still makes depressing reading. However, do you see any reason for optimism?

I think that the amount of attention this issue has received in the last year is one reason to be optimistic. The more awareness there is, the more people are actively talking about the issues, the more pressure there will be to start changing outdated practices. I was encouraged to see the CRS enter into this discussion last June with the two-part webinar on the gender imbalance on radio and then to build in some programming on the schedule for the 2020 Country Radio Seminar.

One group who seem to be starting a ‘movement’ are ‘The Highwomen’. What impact do you think they could have on the industry?

I think that The Highwomen have already had a significant impact on this conversation – even if it’s not (yet) at the level of radio ads. And this is not just on a musical level by using their album as a space to tell stories about the human experience, but also by using their platform to create a positive and inclusive space. Their presence within the genre has inspired hope in many female artists, and their message has already changed the tone of some conversations in the genre.

Our mission is to help fight for better female representation. Is there anything you believe sites like ourselves could to to help better the situation for female artists in the genre.

I think that Belles and Gals is already doing a wonderful job to spotlight and support female artists. From the interviews, to album reviews, to feature articles – your site (and others) are creating an important and positive space for female artists. What I love about your site is that you are supporting artists from all communities
within the genre and at all stages of their career – from artists signed to labels to those that are carving out new spaces for their music –,as well as the voices that are further underrepresented like members of the LGBTQ+ community and racialized voices. Sites like Belles and Gals create inclusive spaces that reflect the diverse and
growing audience.

Interview conducted by Samantha Melrose (twitter.com/SMelrose93) and Nick Cantwell (twitter.com/nickbelles_gals)

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