This column originally appeared on June 4, 2015. This article appears courtesy of IMGR.com: Complete Station Branding on Barter. When you log-in everything is branded with your VO, ready to go.
While a debate rages about the role of female artists at country radio, the presence of female artists at top 40 is on the upswing after an atypically low 2014. This despite claims elsewhere that country radio’s recent resistance to female acts isn’t that much greater than top 40.
Besides having more hits by females than country, the “no-two-females-in-a-row” policy, a once-standard programming truism in many formats, appears to be almost nonexistent in top 40 these days. Instructing PDs to avoid back-to-back females was just one of the comments that pitted country consultant Keith Hill against many in the industry, and beyond.
The subsequent debate led to a query from author Eric Weisbard, who went back to a statistic in a February roundtable discussion in the trade publication Country Aircheck. Weisbard, whose “Top 40 Democracy” traces the intersection of hit music and sociology over the last 60 years, asked if it was true that “even top 40 is only 31% female”—more than country’s 18% of 2014’s top 100 singles—“but nowhere near 50/50,” as the article contended.
That number seemed low. Anecdotally, the successful top 40 of the last decade has always felt like a format driven by female artists, beginning with Kelly Clarkson’s early salvos in the pop revolution. The female pop of Clarkson, Pink, Katy Perry, and now Taylor Swift has become the new sound of adult top 40 and mainstream AC as well—seemingly making females as conspicuous in pop as they are absent in country.
But was that just perception? Are top 40 PDs retrenching as well? We looked at the 50 most-played CHR singles for each of the last three years according to Nielsen BDSRadio—covering most of the year’s consensus hits. We also looked at the presence of female artists in the top 25 for this week and the comparable week for the last three years.
In our tally, we were looking for songs with female lead vocals—certainly a key issue in the still-debated topic of whether women like hearing other women. So EDM titles helmed by a male DJ/producer but sung primarily by a woman, a situation that doesn’t exist in country, counted as a female vocal. There were also a handful of “male rapper/female hook” combinations that we counted as duets.
Between 2012 and 2014, there was a definite wobble in the percentage of females among the year’s biggest hits, although that number still bottomed out above 31 percent. (We did use 50 songs rather than 100 and a different chart source,)
2012: 40% female, 52% male, 8% duets
2013: 48% female, 50% male, 2% duets
2014: 36% female, 58% male, 6% duets
Although the difference between 2013 and 2014 hinges on only four more male solo hits than the year before, one could look for larger forces at work. The boomlet in retro-flavored R&B was led by male artists—Sam Smith, John Legend, Pharrell. Meanwhile, Perry, the female standard-bearer of recent years, was facing diminishing returns with her third album, while Swift didn’t become active until fall. Dance music was still often female-led, but with EDM taking up more CHR real estate, there was room for more male vocals in a genre once synonymous with female singers.
But don’t dwell on the 2014 numbers too long. A look at the most-played songs at mainstream top 40 for the last week of May shows that things are changing again. We looked at both the composition of the top 10 and the top 25—below which no song can be said to be a confirmed hit.
2012: 20% female, 60% male, 20% duets
2013: 50% female, 50% male
2014: 30% female, 70% male
2015: 50% female, 50% male
2012: 44% female, 44% male, 12% duets
2013: 44% female, 52% male, 4% duets
2014: 24% female, 76% male
2015: 48% female, 52% male
The current strength of female artists in the top 10 is bolstered by two male DJ/female vocalist titles—David Guetta & Nicki Minaj’s “Hey Mama” and DJ Snake & AlunaGeorge’s “You Know You Like It.” But the top 10 also features Swift, Ellie Goulding, and Tove Lo. Again, the stats hinge on a relatively small number of hits—a day earlier, Ariana Grande had not yet fallen out of the top 25 and female artists were actually 52% of the tally.
Finally, we spot-checked the number of top 40 stations enforcing female-artist separation—a once-commonly-held rule across multiple formats—by looking at the 2 p.m. hour for Friday, May 29, across all CHRs in top 10 markets (plus SiriusXM Hits 1). We also looked at medium market CHRs in markets No. 50-59.
In the top 10 markets, it is nearly impossible to find a CHR where you will not hear two female-led records back-to-back at some point during a random hour. Out of 23 stations, only two—KIIS Los Angeles and KRBE Houston—didn’t have such a segue during that hour, and some had several.
In the medium markets, which included Jacksonville, Hartford, Louisville, Richmond, Buffalo, and Rochester, N.Y., there were three stations out of 15 that did not have a female segue during the random hour. And if you count female-sung dance records, at least one station (WFBC Greenville, S.C.), put together a stretch of six in a row.
To some extent, there are logistics at work here. Even those country PDs who deplore the lack of female hits at their format have a hard time scheduling consecutive females without creating greater clumping of male artists elsewhere. It’s easier at a format where female artists account for nearly half the hits. But the success of female artists at a CHR format that continues to forge a successful mother/daughter coalition would seem to challenge Hill’s contention that “women like male artists” predominantly, at least in the abstract.