Maddie Wilson. Photo by Brooke Greenberg; used with permission.
Country singer-songwriter Maddie Wilson knows she is fighting against a strong current with today’s release of her new single “RIP” – and not just because she faces the combined marketing might of Taylor Swift and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
It was pure bad luck that, after Maddie had committed to today’s release date, Swift started a swirl of speculation about her own plans by adding “4.26” to all her social media posts. Millions of Swifties showed why they might have been Kremlinologists if they were born a generation or two earlier, as they filled the internet with conjecture about what their favorite megastar has in store. That is not the ideal time for a promising but comparatively little-known independent artist to introduce her latest creation, as Maddie ruefully noted in her own online posts. (At the same time, she admitted that she too is excited about whatever Swift is doing.)
Today also happens to be the first full day in which “Avengers: Endgame” will appear on approximately 105% of this planet’s theatrical movie screens. That estimate might actually be low, if you consider that some theaters have scheduled round-the-clock screenings for the next several days in what might become the biggest Hollywood opening weekend ever. Royalties will probably be streaming in from other galaxies for eons to come.
My firm is Maddie’s business manager (she was our Entertainment & Sports team’s launch client, in fact), so I was involved in her release planning. We knew about the Avengers film when we chose the date; that alone was not a big concern. After all, people need to entertain themselves as they drive to the theater.
With no disrespect to Iron Man, Groot and the rest of the gang, Maddie faces a much bigger obstacle in getting her new track in front of a mass audience: the fact that she is a female country music performer. As many people have noted, this genre has never been particularly female-friendly. It has recently experienced a “bro-country” phase that either underscored the existing problem or made it worse.
Female talent is underrepresented in all facets of the country music industry, with the possible exception of songwriting. The USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative recently released a study that indicated female artists – including members of duos and bands as well as solo acts – accounted for a mere 16% of the top 500 country songs on Billboard’s Hot Country chart between 2014 and 2018. Put another way, that’s roughly five male artists for every female artist on the country charts during that time. Trade publication Country Aircheck found that radio airplay is also badly lopsided; female artists made up 13% of radio play in 2016 and 10.7% in 2017. With less exposure comes less recognition; the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report found that the Academy of Country Music’s Entertainer of the Year nominees have been entirely male for the past two years. In the past five years, the Academy nominated only two women for the prestigious award.
Not only do women have a harder time achieving commercial success in the business, but when fame comes, it tends to end earlier than for male artists. The Annenberg Inclusion Initiative study found that none of the top-performing women in the four years they examined were older than 35. In contrast, seven of the eight top male artist in the study were age 40 or older. There are exceptions – Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Faith Hill and Martina McBride have hung on to genuine country stardom past age 50 – but the vast majority of female country singers drop off the charts and the airwaves before they acquire a respectable set of wrinkles.
Offstage and behind the microphone, female talent is also underrepresented. There are fewer women than men among the producers, engineers and studio performers who make the music; in the programming directors and talent buyers who bring it to the public; and behind the billing and sponsorship dollars that place performers at concerts and festivals. While female songwriters are not doing substantially worse in country music than they are in pop, they also still have a long way to go. Women represent a mere 12% of credited writers on the top 200 country songs in 2014 and 2018 (compared to 14% of credited songwriters across Billboard’s Hot 100 Year End charts in the same two years).
There is a nascent backlash against this trend, although it is difficult to detect in the statistics thus far.
Kacey Musgraves – whose album “Golden Hour” won Album of the Year at the Academy of Country Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards and the Grammy Awards – has spoken out against the sexism in her genre. She told Elle magazine that she and her husband tallied the songs they heard in a couple of hours listening to country radio in 2018: 31 male artists to two female artists. She also pushed back against the pervasive notion that male and female fans alike prefer male artists. “We also tallied the number of times—35—we heard references to a woman’s body or skimpy clothing, or the actions the man wanted her to do: cook for him, please him sexually, bring him a beer,” Musgraves said. “And we’re being told women want to hear that over hearing other women?” Fellow Grammy winners Carrie Underwood and Brandi Carlile have also spoken about the need for greater awareness of the way the industry works against female artists.
Some women have taken action to boost awareness of the problem and to support each other’s work. Carlile has organized an all-female, country-leaning music festival, now in the planning stages for its third year. The singing duo Maddie & Tae attracted notice nearly five years ago with their video for “Girl in a Country Song,” which used male actors to parody the objectification of women as scantily clad hood ornaments in bro-country videos and lyrics. Around the same time, female singer-songwriters in Nashville banded together in a collective they called Song Suffragettes to give one another exposure and encouragement. The group has succeeded in getting several of its members recording and publishing deals. Current stars including Carly Pearce, Kelsea Ballerini and Kalie Shorr all received important early exposure at Song Suffragettes.
Maddie Wilson has played at several “Suffs” shows in the past year, as well. One of her first public performances of “RIP” was at a Song Suffragettes gig last October. The positive audience reaction helped her choose that song for her first single release in 2019.
Making and sharing her music has been Maddie’s passion since she first took the stage at age 12 at the Utah State Fair. She built a performing and recording career through her teenage years with her own YouTube channel and a series of independent album releases. Now, at 22, she can look forward to what I expect will be many opportunities and achievements to come. Maybe she will continue as an independent artist through her family-controlled publisher and label, Music For Good. Or maybe, if the country music establishment does a better job of leveling the playing field for young women, Maddie will sign a deal with a major publisher, label, tour promoter, or some combination of those. We’ll have to wait and see.
You never know how these adventure stories will turn out – at least most of the time. I expect the Avengers and their fellow superheroes will, in fact, save the universe from the megalomaniacal Thanos. An even more certain bet is that whatever Taylor Swift plans to do this week will make it onto the Galactic Hot 100.
Maddie’s hopes for her new single are somewhat more modest. If “RIP” finds decent commercial life on country radio and streaming platforms, and if it helps her connect with some new fans along the way, it would be worth more to her than an Infinity Stone or two. “Endgame” is the finale of a 22-film cycle of Marvel movies. For Maddie Wilson and many other talented young women like her in country music, I hope the saga is only beginning.