‘Saladgate’: Country music dustup after consultant disses female performers

On the heels of the NFL’s ‘Deflategate’ comes ‘Saladgate’, a term coined by Trigger Coroneos blogging at Saving Country Music. A dustup is in progress between female country musicians and their supporters, and  radio programming consultant Keith Hill. It’s likely Hill has looked in the mirror at least once since making controversial remarks in an interview with Country Air Check and asked himself, What were you thinking? Then again, his remarks suggest a level of self-absorption that may prohibit objective self-analysis. 

The interview with Hill conducted by Russ Penuell yielded the makings of Saladgate with remarks like this:

“Hill cautions against playing too many females. And playing them back to back, he says, is a no-no. “If you want to make ratings in Country radio, take females out.”

It gets worse. Then Hill opined:

“The expectation is we’re principally a male format with a smaller female component. I’ve got about 40 music databases in front of me and the percentage of females in the one with the most is 19%. Trust me, I play great female records and we’ve got some right now; they’re just not the lettuce in our salad. The lettuce is Luke Bryan and Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and artists like that. The tomatoes of our salad are the females.”

To be fair to Hill, you have to read the whole interview. He explains how he selects songs, how many times a song should be played in a cycle, and why it’s important for a station to have a clean uncluttered library. Hill also claims, “Women like male artists.”

The blogger said the consultant is “playfully described by some as ‘the world’s leading authority on music scheduling’”. Hill, speaking to an industry magazine, may have not anticipated the backlash.

The legendary Martina McBride popped a question on her Facebook page:

“Wow…..just wow. Just read this from a major country radio publication. How do you feel about this statement? I especially want to hear from the females. Do you not like to hear other women singing about what you are going through as women? I’m really curious. Because to me, country music is about relating. Someone relating to what you are really going through on a day to day basis in your life. Did you girls (core female listeners) know you were being ‘assessed’ in this way? Is this how you really feel? Hmmm….”

Miranda Lambert, fiery icon whose songs are among the most requested at live venues I visit—restaurants, bars, festivals—summed up Hill’s aesthetic bent in a Tweet:

“This is the biggest bunch of BULLSHIT I have ever heard.”

Lambert also said she would do everything in her power “to support and promote female singer/songwriters in country music. Always.”

Although Hill claims women prefer male artists, that isn’t what I’ve witnessed while visiting hundreds of live music venues during the past few years.

My daughters are performers. They do traditional country and what my younger daughter calls indie country. They’re not the point of my argument here. I attempt to keep their work distinctly separate from my own. I assisted them as they began to perform. I served as roadie, adviser, and helping hand in the early days and sometimes I still do. Because of their career choice, I found myself spending more time in bars as a mature adult than I ever did in college. I learned a great deal about country music, bands, and small businesses in the entertainment sector.

For one thing, songs by women are requested as much, if not more, than songs by men. For another, I have yet to meet a country music fan anywhere who doesn’t want to hear artists like McBride, Lambert, Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson, and too many others to list. That said, my daughters did face a barrier of sorts in the beginning, and they bridged that barrier by being able to play their own instruments.

Club owners and bar owners wanted upbeat. They wanted covers although you were free to do your own compositions as well. Because many of these venues can’t support a full band, the entertainment sector can find it difficult to book a female act. One vocalist we met explained it. “I can sing,” she said, “ and I can play a guitar. I just can’t do both at the same time.”

The girls focused on upbeat, high energy songs. Both play an instrument. Both are talented songwriters, and they both can sing. They view their work as art, but they view it as a business, and they conduct themselves accordingly. Their percussionist is male; he came aboard after the duo had established a brand. Their success hasn’t crowned them superstars yet (I’m not sure that’s even what they want), but it has enabled them to work at music every single day they want to and to earn money. They stay booked and they get good press. If they could magically add another day to the weekend—that’s when most venues want you—they would.

Being female hasn’t held them back one bit, and venue owners in some cases were thrilled to be able to book them because, as one business owner told me, “It’s almost impossible to find a female act that works in the space we have here.” That’s because in many of these clubs, there’s barely enough room for two performers. Bear in mind floor space equals table space equals revenue. So if a performer can only do vocals and needs two or three other musicians to support those vocals, that performer may be limited in choice of venues. Small venues often can’t accommodate a four or five piece band.

The irony is that most of these venues are small businesses owned and managed by males, and the country music scene in our area is dominated by male bands. Why is it ironic? My daughters have received incredible support from all of the above, and they enjoy a broad network of fellow performers who have helped them and received help from the girls in return.

Keith Hill may see women as “tomatoes” in a salad consisting of great performers like Urban. What’s sad, however, is boiling a creative field down to metrics, down to statements like, “You’re beginning to get into peril when you go from triple digits to four digits in spin count.”

What? Talk about boring. His remarks, however, do explain why when we travel, we hear the same stuff from station to station, repeated ad nauseam. Seems to me music programmers should reassess their aesthetic.

If Hill’s formula for programming produces the revenue a station is seeking, it’s his prerogative to schedule what he wants. But Hill and the station owners should bear something in mind.

The Internet is bringing changes to the music industry just as it did to my own industry, writing and publishing. Although some experts claim you have to have radio play to be anybody, what those same experts don’t talk about is the ability of any musician to build a fan base, publicize his or her work, and use off the grid marketing to establish a brand.

Internet radio is still in its infancy, but that will continue to grow, and that is where the love is for indie artists. Meanwhile, women continue to build catalogs and clout in all music sectors and country is no exception.

Seems to me the “tomatoes” are in Hill’s case being deliberately overlooked as country admittedly takes a path towards a more pop sound. Thing is, there will always be roots country, though, and you don’t need a Keith Hill to find good music. It’s on your phone, your laptop, your iPad, your iPod, and even on some indie channels on cable TV.

I think Hill may need to do a bit of navel gazing and examine his own aesthetic. He’s taken himself hostage by adopting a mindset that produces the consequence he desires. Simply put, Hill favors bro country so that is his standard. But all those women in all those clubs and restaurants I’ve been in in a number of different states didn’t “prefer” male or female music—they just liked plain good music. Too bad the consultant and his listeners are missing a lot of it.

When my younger daughter read Hill’s remarks, she went apoplectic. After we talked, I told her the truth.

Go out there and prove him wrong. Success really is the best revenge.

And by the way, hat tip to blogger Trigger Coroneos at Saving Country Music for breaking what may become a far broader story than Mr. Hill expected.

(Commentary by Kay B. Day/May 29, 2015)

About Kay Day

Kay B. Day is a freelance writer who has published in national and international magazines and websites. The author of 3 books, her work is anthologized in textbooks and collections. She has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. Day is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the Authors Guild.
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