Developing female acts are having difficulty finding opening slots on big summer shows, with some pointing to country radio’s lack of women as a main factor.
In January, Live Nation announced this summer's Country Megaticket, an annual promotion that offers consumers discounted admission to a slate of eight big country tours at their local amphitheater.
For the first time in a decade, none of the headliners on the Megaticket shows are women. Of the 27 support acts, only three (11.1 percent) are women, and six of the tours — by Luke Bryan, Florida Georgia Line, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Thomas Rhett and Chris Young — exclude female talent altogether.
The exceptions: Jason Aldean will feature Carly Pearce on his summer run, and Tenille Townes and Caylee Hammack will appear on Dierks Bentley's Burning Man Tour.
The low figure reflects the difficulty women are having at country radio, with programmers saying labels don't sign enough women and labels saying radio won't play them anyway. In December, no female acts were in the top 20 of Billboard's Country Airplay chart for the first time since its 1990 launch. That can't be underestimated, says Cassadee Pope, who's opening for Maren Morris in theaters this summer.
"Radio play is a huge component when it comes to choosing tourmates, and I think it's why you don't have a lot of women being asked to appear on these huge tours," says Pope, who released her sophomore album Feb. 1. "Everyone has heard that if a female artist isn't on the radio, she's not an appealing tourmate, and she's not going to draw as much as someone who is getting that radio play."
"Touring was the last holdout, where women in country music were still holding their own," says a booking agent, lamenting how much the concert business reflects radio. "I've been steering the women I represent toward Americana, because I don't see the gender bias there that is so obviously out in the open in the country format. A lot of great female artists are making their way there — Brandi Carlile, Lori McKenna, Margo Price — that in years past would have been obvious country stars." But few Americana artists can sell out amphitheaters.
Many of the male artists on this year's Country Megaticket have previously featured female acts, including Bryan with Lauren Alaina and Rhett with Kelsea Ballerini in 2017; and Young with Pope in 2016. And in addition to Aldean and Bentley, a small number of male artists — from the arena level on down — are bringing women acts on the road this year. Blake Shelton's Friends and Heroes Tour features Alaina; Chris Stapleton has Price opening a number of dates and Kenny Chesney added Caroline Jones to his Spring arena run.
Some male artists are speaking out about what they see as a problem. Bentley notes that bringing women on tour is his way of showing support, saying, "We need some more women in our format." Stapleton adds, "We have a wealth of super-talented women, songwriters, players."
The issue isn't just being recognized by artists. On March 1, Live Nation announced it had hired longtime promoter Ali Harnell for the newly created role of president/chief strategy officer of Women Nation, to spearhead women's initiatives in the live sector and among the Live Nation staff.
Many female country artists are finding male pop stars more welcoming tourmates. In 2018, Cam supported Sam Smith; Kacey Musgraves opened for Harry Styles; and Morris toured with Niall Horan. This summer, Abby Anderson will open Rob Thomas' amphitheater shows.
"Back in January, I had made it a goal to open for an act outside of country," says Anderson, who has opened for country artists Brett Eldredge, Chase Rice and Russell Dickerson. "When I listen to music and make a playlist, I'm not thinking genres — usually you find a Kacey Musgraves record right next to ‘Juice' by Lizzo. Country listeners don't just listen to country, and rock listeners don't just listen to rock."
Such decisions can have the unintended effect of further segregating the country touring market — and not just into all-male groupings. Besides Morris' all-female lineup, Carrie Underwood's summer arena tour will feature Maddie & Tae and Runaway June throughout its five-month run.
"I think going out with these all-female lineups, and them selling out venues with audiences just immersing themselves in the experience, would help show that there are folks that want to hear us when they're given a chance to do so," Pope says. "I think if these all-female tours continue, it'll help spread that awareness, and force some folks at radio to understand."