Op-Ed: Treating Country Tours Like Middle School Dances Isn’t a Long-Term Solution
On the morning of Jan. 17, Maren Morris announced her Girl: The World Tour, featuring Cassadee Pope and RaeLynn. About 12 hours later, Luke Bryan unveiled his own trek, the Sunset Repeat Tour, with Cole Swindell and newcomer Jon Langston in tow as openers.
Boys on one tour; girls on the other. When did country music turn into a middle school dance?
It's not just Morris and Bryan, either. Kelly Clarkson's Meaning of Life Tour includes special guests Kelsea Ballerini, Maggie Rose and The Voice Season 14 winner Brynn Cartelli. Carrie Underwood is bringing Maddie & Tae and Runaway June on her Cry Pretty Tour 360. And with a couple exceptions, the shows that are part of Live Nation's Summer 2019 Country Megaticket are literally all dudes.
This year's tour lineups reflect mainstream country music's current state well -- and that's not a compliment. So while it's understandable that 2019's treks have largely divided down gender lines, it's concerning, especially looking at the long term.
While it's understandable that 2019's treks have largely divided down gender lines, it's concerning, especially looking at the long term.
In 2018, the gender disparity in country music became a hot topic. To recap the main points: Between 2016 and 2017, the percentage of songs by solo female artists played on country radio dropped from 13 percent to 10.4 percent. In early December 2018, the Top 20 of the Billboard Country Airplay chart contained absolutely no women for the first time since the chart launched in January of 1990. And female headliners country music festivals are few and far between (Stagecoach's 2019 lineup, for example, features all male headliners, though its lineup is about one-quarter women overall).
Women in country music are walking a tough road right now. So when one of them plans a tour (or a festival in a tropical location), it's only natural to want to use that opportunity to give other deserving female artists a platform. As Underwood pointed out after her tour was announced, "I’m not throwing anybody a bone by taking them out on tour with me. They deserve to be there."
"It’s good when women support women," Underwood added, "and I feel like the more we do of that and the more normal it is, why would I not want to take women out on the road with me?"
In a fair world, female artists banding together for tours this year will prove to The Powers That Be -- tour promoters, radio programmers, label executives -- that, yes, women (and men) want to hear women artists, and that, yes, an all-female lineup can be successful. This success will lead to more opportunities for these female artists, including more tours with both men and women on the bill. But it could be counterproductive, too, or not effect a lasting change.
Country radio is stuck in a feedback loop: Listeners allegedly don't want to hear women, so radio isn't playing their songs, which means they're not gaining fans or name recognition, so they're not getting opportunities to tour or promote themselves elsewhere, which means radio won't play their songs, so ... Therefore, it's not hard to imagine all-male and all-female tours leading to more of the same; after all Dierks Bentley and Jason Aldean (although they have women on their bills as well) are touring with Jon Pardi and Kane Brown, respectively, again this year because it worked out well before.
The women of pop music found themselves in a similar situation in the late '90s: Faced with a bevy of male-heavy tours and light radio airplay for female artists, singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan and her team founded Lillith Fair, the now-iconic all-women, festival-style tour that ran for three years.
It's clear that country music's leading ladies (and some of its men) are ready to do the work. But it's time for the rest of the genre's headliners to step up.
"That was a time of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam dominating the radio waves and festivals, and you wouldn't think twice about hearing two of those bands in a row. But if they added Tori Amos that week, they'd say, 'We can't add you too, but you're in the running,'" McLachlan recalled to Billboard in 2017 -- a scenario that sounds all too familiar for country's women more than two decades later. "So, because women were being clumped together like that, we created a festival with all women clumped together. It was a grand f--k you!"
In its three years, 1997-1999, Lillith Fair featured sets from McLachlan, Emmylou Harris, Patty Griffin, Pat Benatar and many more -- both big names and up-and-comers. The event raised more than $10 million for charity, proved that an all-women lineup could sell tickets and, as Martina McBride noted to Billboard, was partially responsible for the creation of the hot AC radio format. But for as successful as Lillith Fair was, and as lasting as its legacy has been, it did not lead to long-term change, as a number of current rising pop artists shared with Glamour in another piece about the festival's 20th anniversary.
It's clear that country music's leading ladies (and some of its men) are ready to do the work and invite women out on tour with them. But it's time for the rest of the genre's headliners to step up. Because right now, we're at the top of a slippery slope, and someone's about to give us a big ol' push.
Here's Who's Hitting the Road in 2019