Beyoncé has a country hit. How will country radio handle that?

NASHVILLE — As the country radio programmers settled into their seats bright and early on a recent Friday morning for a presentation in a hotel ballroom at the annual Country Radio Seminar, they were met with a warning.

“I want to preface this with: The data really won’t be easy to digest. It’s not a pretty picture, right now, of representation,” said Jada Watson, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa whose research focuses on country music.

Watson started clicking through slides about inclusivity and diversity on country radio: From 2002 through 2023, songs by White artists averaged 96.5 percent of country radio airplay. Of the remaining small percentage of spins by artists of color, nearly 96 percent were from only three singers: Darius Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen. And songs by women of color averaged .06 percent of the overall spins on country radio.

End of carousel

“Not easy to look at, right? Holding up that mirror to our current genre right now,” Westwood One radio host Elaina Smith, the moderator, told the audience. “But that’s why we’re here today, is to talk about how you can actually implement change and work towards a more diverse station and playlist.”

Plans for this panel — titled “Diversi-‘tea’: Spilling the Data on Inclusive Programming” — came together months ago, part of a large slate of programming for the longtime conference where hundreds of country radio executives and staffers descend upon Nashville for educational sessions and to schmooze amid happy hours and music showcases from A-listers to new artists. At the time, organizers could not have predicted that a mere few weeks before CRS, one of the biggest superstars on the planet would shine an intense spotlight on country music and inclusivity — and specifically, country radio.

When Beyoncé released a video during the Super Bowl that featured the plucking of a banjo, followed by two country-sounding songs titled “Texas Hold ’Em” and “16 Carriages,” the internet lit up with anticipation. After years of hints, Beyoncé was embracing her Texas roots and making a country album, scheduled to drop March 29. Two days later, an online fury erupted: A fan emailed a small Oklahoma radio station and requested “Texas Hold ’Em,” only to receive a reply that read, “‘We do not play Beyoncé on KYKC as we are a country music station.”

The fan posted the email on social media and KYKC was flooded with furious messages that pointed to the incident as an example of racism in a majority-White genre that has long sidelined Black singers, ever since the music charts separated “hillbilly music” from “race records” in the early 20th century.

In media interviews, the Oklahoma station manager said he had missed the news that Beyoncé released a country single, and after seeing the passionate response, added the song to the station’s playlist. (That same day, Sony Music Nashville, owned by the same parent company as Beyoncé’s Columbia Records, started officially promoting the song to country radio.) But the viral incident inspired a wave of online discourse that many in the industry have been having for years about the lack of success that artists of color have found in country music, despite the genre’s roots in Black culture.

At the Country Radio Seminar (CRS), Beyoncé came up in various panels across three days, referred to at least once as “the elephant in the room.” To the outside world, “Texas Hold ’Em” is already a country hit; the song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart last month, making Beyoncé the first Black woman to mark the achievement. (Before her, only seven Black female country acts have appeared on the chart in its entire history.) But that chart includes radio play, sales and streams — those in the industry know that country radio, measuring only airplay, is a different test altogether.

After all, country remains the last genre where radio is critically important. Even in the era of streaming and TikTok, a radio breakout is the mark of success. Radio chart placement dictates whether artists can be nominated at industry award shows; it helps land spots on tours and festivals; and if your songs climb high enough, serious money starts to roll in.

Of course, a superstar on Beyoncé’s level doesn’t need country radio — so the presence of “Texas Hold ‘Em” on the airplay chart (it currently sits at No. 42 on Billboard airplay) really isn’t even all about her. Instead, it’s raising broader questions about the Black country artists in Nashville, particularly women, who have been diligently working in the genre for years, and those who are wondering whether Beyoncé could finally be what helps bring attention to their efforts, given their music — as pointed out at the conference devoted to radio — makes up less than 1 percent of airplay.

Country music already has a reputation of being closed to those whom gatekeepers deem outsiders, and the industry takes pride in the stars who pay their dues and climb their way up Nashville’s traditional ladder: Play bars and clubs, get a publishing deal, write songs for other artists, land a record deal, go on a radio tour.

This might be why the word “welcome” came up repeatedly at CRS. During a panel of powerful country music executives, some fretted that musicians from other formats who want to go country (from Beyoncé to Post Malone to Lana Del Rey) might take up spots on the chart that would otherwise go to country singers. But, at the same time, they could bring more attention to the genre.

“One way we can help that is becoming welcoming, being welcoming. Absolutely Beyoncé can take a slot from a new artist who is in the genre and developing, and we should be protective in a sense of those who put in the time and effort and say ‘I live here and want to be here,’” said Jon Loba, president, Frontline Recordings at BMG North America. However, he added, “There has to be a balance. If we have these superstars saying country is cool, we need to be really careful and not try to shut that out.”

When another executive said on a different panel that he was “pleasantly surprised at the overwhelming sense of welcome” that Beyoncé had received in the genre so far, Black Opry founder Holly G noted that the conversation was not really even about Beyoncé.

“I think that she’s amazing, I think what she’s done is great, obviously. But the welcoming that you’re talking about is an exception to the rule and it is not the standard. I can name 50 Black women who have been knocking on country radio’s door for the last 20 years with no reception, no answer; they turn the lights off and act like nobody’s home,” said Holly, who withholds her last name because of the threats she’s received for pointing out racism in the industry.

“So while there is this surface-level celebration for what she’s accomplished, below the surface, there’s an entire community of artists that are frustrated and confused. They’ve been told they have to do all these different things to compete and play this game, and Beyoncé came in and proved that none of these things are true,” Holly continued. “So for me, the conversation is about: What is the industry going to do to make the way that Beyoncé is being treated the standard for Black women and other people of color in this industry?”

Singer-songwriter Julie Williams, a member of the Black Opry and part of the CMT Next Women of Country class of 2023, has seen an increase in followers and streams since Beyoncé dropped her new music. Williams posted several TikToks about how Beyoncé’s country era could highlight other artists of color.

“We’ve been out here making music, trying to be seen, sharing our stories — and the country music world isn’t really listening,” Williams said in one video. “So as you’re adding Beyoncé, make sure to add some other Black country artists.” She tagged Mickey Guyton, Brittney Spencer, Denitia, Chapel Hart, Madeline Edwards, Roberta Lea, Kashus Culpepper, Tanner Adell, Nicky Diamonds and Miko Marks.

In an interview, Williams said she knows the importance of radio. But as an independent artist, she’s also been advised to try to find other ways to break out, given that radio campaigns are quite expensive and that a small percentage of Black women are played on the radio in the first place — even the few Black women that have had major label deals, such as Guyton, haven’t been able to get airplay. She’s hopeful that the conversation around Beyoncé will inspire country gatekeepers to give more artists a chance, because her presence alone has already created more interest from new fans who previously didn’t think country music was for them.

“It really shows the power of Beyoncé as a driver of culture, because she didn’t necessarily say, ‘Here are these songs, go out and find other Black, smaller black country artists to support,’” Williams said. “But she knew what she was doing … it would elevate a conversation that has already been started by a lot of Black folks in this genre — but uplifting it and bringing it to the platform that Beyoncé has. It really has felt career-changing for a lot of us.”

In a hotel coffee shop downstairs from CRS, singer-songwriter-producer Breland recalled that he’s seen both sides of country radio — he got a No. 1 hit when he was a featured artist alongside Hardy on Dierks Bentley’s “Beers On Me.” But afterward, when his label marketed his own song “For What It’s Worth” to stations, he got the feedback he typically hears: “It’s just not country enough.” The song failed to crack the Top 50.

“What they’re really saying isn’t ‘It’s not country enough.’ They’re saying, ‘We don’t trust him. We don’t trust that our listeners will support someone like him’ — that’s what I take away from that statement,” Breland said, referencing the chart data that shows so few Black artists. He has also seen a spike in followers around discourse about the Beyoncé music, as people are tagging him in posts highlighting his work, and hopes that the support for Black country singers doesn’t end there.

“The question is going to be whether or not country music does the thing that I’ve seen them do in the past which is, ‘See, we did this for this person and therefore we have handled our problem!’ And I don’t think that that’s going to solve the problem. Playing Beyoncé has to be the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “The favor that they can do to the Black community — that they have gone decades now, systemically, not playing at country radio — is to use this as an opportunity for growth.”

During multiple CRS sessions, radio programmers said that everything starts with a good song, and they want to have a more inclusive playlist. But in many cases, they play only the artists that the labels promote to them, and there still aren’t many Black singers signed to major Nashville labels. Others pointed out that even if labels offered a new, diverse lineup of artists, some programmers are “scared” to take a chance on something different — because if a listener doesn’t like or recognize a song or singer, they will change the station, and changing the station means lower ratings.

Jaye Albright, a radio consultant, predicted that Beyoncé “will probably never be No. 1 on the country chart, because there’s going to be a small number of stations that will probably never play it because of who Beyoncé is and her story and all of that.” And to go No. 1 on country radio, you need nearly all stations to get on board and spin the song.

“If you miss that, for that reason, shame on you,” Albright said, adding, “Of course we are all driven by the bottom line and all of that which tends to make us all very conservative and careful. And yet that’s a death knell, you know? In other words, we simply must be creative or we won’t survive.”

While acknowledging Beyoncé’s single as a “historic” event, nearly all the programmers who spoke to The Washington Post said “Texas Hold ’Em” was proving to be polarizing in listener feedback and research among audiences.

“When we play it, we’ll get messages from listeners that say ‘Thank you for playing the song’ as much as we’ll get messages from listeners that say ‘Why are you playing the song?’” said Jon Shannon, program director at WPOR in Portland, Maine. “But my entire intent when the song first came out was: This is the most talked-about song in America right now. And however you feel about it, I think it was our place to make sure it gets on the radio so listeners could hear it and decide for themselves.”

At CRS, various presenters wanted to be clear: The reason they are critical of the genre is because they love it and want to see it as a place for everyone. And Beyoncé might be the tipping point for broader changes in the industry.

Jada Watson, the professor, noted that the tools and metrics used within country music were designed out of a “segregated system” that says “country is this” and “country is not that.” So even while someone is not maliciously making decisions based on gender and identity and race and ethnicity, she said, these built-in systems have excluded many over time.

“The audience of country music is far more diverse in every way than we even know,” she said. “And I think that once we start to know who that audience is, we’re going to start to see changes that reflect a greater diversity within the industry as well.”

SOURCE

Leave a Comment