The cancellation heard round the country world happened last week in Sacramento, California, far from the Puritan town of Boston and 1642, the year Hester Prynne was made to wear the scarlet letter “A” as punishment for her adultery. Lindsay Ell committed no such crime, but her appearance at country radio station, KNCI, was abruptly canceled because they didn’t approve of her romance with Bobby Bones, a powerful and popular DJ, and rival of theirs. Sounds quite petty by 21st century standards, but shines a light on the inequality that still exists in the world today. Be the music industry a microcosm of the bigger picture, it took center stage in the form of country artist, Lindsay Ell.

     Lindsay isn’t the first female artist to be treated unfairly by the music industry, nor will she be the last. At the moment, she’s been thrust into the role of Hester Prynne, standing atop the scaffold for all to judge her for her subjective crime. Some say that whenever you put yourself in the world of celebrity, your private life becomes public property, with all that that entails. Celebrity couples offer twice the fodder for the gluttons at the trough. Individually, Lindsay and Bobby are equally talented people in their respective professions. They’ve been careful and respectful not to cross any professional lines to gain an advantage. So why are we talking about their private life as opposed to their professional pursuits?

     Welcome to the world of country radio in a male-dominated industry. Everyone knows it generally takes big label support, a wad of cash, and radio airplay for a song to become a hit and an artist to become a household name. For male artists, the chances are pretty good you’ll have a legitimate shot at getting played on country radio. If you’re a female artist, good luck with that. The playing field for you is anything but level. Currently, there are four female solo artists in the Top 50 on the Country Airplay Chart. That’s eight percent. Not real good odds if you’re a woman trying to get your songs heard by a wider audience. If we hold the process up to a mirror – “Mirror, mirror on the wall, this doesn’t appear to be fair at all.”

     So what’s behind the process? It’s a well-kept secret as to who determines what gets played on the radio and how often. With the consolidation of so many stations under one mass media corporation, power is wielded through market share. Rivalries naturally emerge, as do the prejudices and power moves based on those rivalries. In this case, CBS Radio-owned KNCI turned a 21st century rivalry with a local iHeartMedia-owned station (on which Bobby Bones’ syndicated morning show airs) into a 17th century move. They had no issue with Lindsay Ell’s music or her label (BBR Music Group). They branded her because of her lover. The cancellation of her appearance became collateral damage in their stand against a rival. Such a decision would never have been considered if she’d been a male artist dating a popular female DJ from that same rival. Perish the thought.

     One could make the argument that who you are has more to do with your songs being played on the radio than how good your music is. Certainly more than four female artists have songs worthy of being in the Top 50, but they have to jump through a few more hoops to get there. Looks and age will outrank any other consideration when it comes to a label taking a chance on a female artist. Image is everything, and sex still buys, and sells. Once you’ve passed the image test, your behavior better be right up there with the Virgin Mary. In country music, that’s the only Madonna they’re looking for. Make a mistake, you’re done. Female artists don’t get a second chance. If you’re a male, just apologize. The public has a very short-term memory where you’re concerned. Music judged on its merits, regardless of gender? American Idol has a better record than country radio. As they say, numbers don’t lie.

     Lindsay Ell isn’t like most female artists in country music. She’s real comfortable with a guitar in her hands, both electric and acoustic. To quote Brad Paisley: “There’s nothing like a girl that can kick your ass on the guitar.” You could make the case that her voice suits either rock or country. No Auto-Tune needed. When allowed to make her own music, she’s got no identity crisis. She knows exactly who she is and how hard she’s worked to get here. Craft her image a thousand different ways, there’s no stripping this girl of her talent. She has earned her spot in a man’s world, the airwaves of country radio, and simply wishes to be judged for her music and not her taste in men. As it is, KNCI has succumbed to the backlash their decision caused. They’ve apologized and politely asked Lindsay to reschedule, no doubt in an attempt to stop the bleeding. All that scarlet-colored liquid can be so messy.

     In music, there should be no difference in the way male and female artists are evaluated for their talent. Access to country radio should not be determined by the two letters that make up your gender. Who you choose to love should be irrelevant. Female artists have been marginalized on country radio for far too long without anyone daring to broach the topic. They’re held to a different standard than male artists, and only recently have they started to push back. We do have a say in this. It’s called money. If your station doesn’t play but a few token females, turn it off. Don’t give a radio programmer who discriminates against women any power over your playlist. Buy their music. Attend their shows. Give them the voice that radio won’t. In the 21st century, there should be no branding a woman with her supposed crime unless men are equally called out to stand upon the scaffold and wear their sin. If they don’t lose opportunities because of it, women shouldn’t either. Perhaps KNCI should be made to change their call letters to KELL. Let the punishment fit the crime, circa 1642. It’s time for a change, country radio. We’re Waiting On You.

Listen to Lindsay’s new EP, Worth The Wait, on Spotify:

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Bev Miskus

Blogger of all things music related in Nashville and beyond.

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