Updated: October 31, 2012 6:14PM
When Mike Dungan signed new artist Kelleigh Bannen to a Capitol Records Nashville record deal, he told her he would rather be “the guy who had to go put out the oil rig fire” than to try to make it in country music as a new female solo artist.
“I looked at her, someone I like very much, and I said, ‘You realize that you’ve chosen a path that is maybe the most difficult on the planet,’ ” recalled Dungan, who is now chairman and CEO of Universal Music Group Nashville.
Indeed, country music hasn’t successfully launched a reliable female hitmaker since Taylor Swift in 2006.
The female vocalist of the year category at Thursday’s 46th annual Country Music Association Awards places pop star Kelly Clarkson alongside Swift, Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Martina McBride. The latter four are established country singers who have appeared on the genre’s radio airplay charts for multiple years and built their careers performing for country music fans.
“You can’t take anything away from Kelly Clarkson having an incredible voice,” said Bannen. “I am interested in women who are committed to our genre. I think we should be a little protective of our genre.”
The heart of the issue is the low number of women currently succeeding in the genre, compounded by the lower number of those able to break through.
“With the measure of success being commercial, basically we have 2.5 females right now (in country music),” said Wade Jessen, senior chart manager for Billboard in Nashville. “We have Carrie Underwood and Taylor Swift, and then Miranda Lambert sort of. If you look at the charts right now, I think there’s some real artists in the solo female ranks and they’re just not developing them fast enough.”
Currently Underwood and Lambert are the only solo females in the top 10 on Billboard’s country airplay chart. Swift’s new pop-leaning album, “Red,” was released Oct. 22 and is at No. 21 on the country airplay chart. Newcomers Kristen Kelly and Kacey Musgraves are in the high 20s.
Country music industry executives have differing ideas on the small number of female singers, ranging from female fans’ hesitation to support other women to radio’s reluctance to give new women an equal shot.
“The gatekeepers at radio have a mindset that females are tough, so they put themselves into this space where they’ll only really truly consider one at a time, maybe two at a time,” Dungan said. “And that’s very, very unfortunate and very frustrating.”
Blair Garner, host of popular country radio show “After Midnite,” called the explanations an “oversimplification” of the male-dominated radio landscape.
“I really and truly believe it has much more to do with the basic market and that people buy what they connect with and for whatever reason, we’ve not had tremendous success with finding that next Taylor Swift,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the opportunities are skewed against them.”
Since Reba McEntire, Martina McBride, Trisha Yearwood, Pam Tillis and Faith Hill dominated much of country radio in the ’90s, Dungan said, “you think this could be cyclical.”
Bannen agreed: “Women reigned in the industry in the ’90s,” she said. “I do think there are cycles in the industry.” Gannett News Service