Written By | Chris Payne
The world of critics and creatives is vastly different from that of the radio biz, and the new rock stars of the 2010s aren’t getting the hits they deserve.
For those paying attention, it’s no secret that most of the best rock music these days is being made by women.
St. Vincent’s Masseduction placed third on the 2017 Pazz & Jop critics’ poll and pushed the longtime critical favorite closer to the mainstream than ever before. Haim was the final act on the Coachella main stage before Beyoncé’s insta-legend performance last weekend. And the New York Times recently devoted a print feature (and immersive online package) to the righteous racket of DIY and punk trendsetters like Downtown Boys and War on Women with the titular proclamation, “Rock’s Not Dead, It’s Ruled By Women.” This is veritably true across most spaces, save for the one that (still) holds the most sway in what becomes a hit: radio.
Listen to your local alternative station or glance through Billboard‘s corresponding chart, and there’s a sense you’re getting a transmission from a bygone era. Or at least one completely divorced from the reality outlined above. Only five songs in this week’s Alternative Songs top 40 feature female singers. You don’t see a single one until CHVRCHES’ “Get Out” at the 15th spot. When Alice Merton’s “No Roots” — the first track by a female lead artist to lead Alternative Songs since Elle King in 2015 — slid out of the top five a month ago, the upper reaches re-populated with usuals like Imagine Dragons, Walk the Moon, Muse, and the Killers.
The format still matters, though. Despite the well-documented rise of How Much The Kids Love Their Streaming, radio play remains the key factor in which alt hits cross over into Top 40 ubiquity (see, “Royals,” “Feel It Still,” the ongoing ascent of Foster the People’s “Sit Next To Me”) and with it, the juice to snag those main stage festival slots and break beyond theater tours and Internet fame.
So why is radio so stuck in the past?
“I honestly don’t have a logical explanation for that,” Merton admits, still acclimating herself to the world of commercial radio after singing with Mom + Pop Records last year. “In the beginning, I was told it would never work because it’s not the kind of song you’d hear on radio.”
Daunting feedback, but not exactly inaccurate. Within the radio world, there’s a sense this current reality — five women out of 40 — is far better than what it was several years ago. “We actually consider this chart right now as like, ‘Oh my god it’s so female-friendly!’” says Risa Matsuki, vice president of promotion at Beggars Group, who’s worked artists from respected indies like Matador and XL to radio for the past six years. “We have to say that now because we’ve never had this many at one time.”
So what’s to blame for this snail’s pace of progress? “With what’s going on in the music industry in regards to gender, you kind of have to take a Marxist standpoint,” says growing alt-radio standby k.flay, whose ferocious single “Blood in the Cut” went top five at the format early last year. “Who controls the means of production?” Rita Houston, program director and DJ at New York City’s WFUV, has seen the answer played out frequently over her 24 years at the influential AAA station: “There are not enough female programmers in decision-making positions,” she insists. “That’s the all-boys world that’s still very much the music biz. On Instagram, a record label won’t think twice about posting a photo with just six dudes.”
Billboard introduced the Alternative Songs chart in 1988 to track the rise of left-of-center rock styles, a companion to the more traditional Mainstream Rock tally. It’s ebbed and flowed between college rock, grunge, rap-metal, and the increasingly guitar-less rock sounds of today, but a glance at who’s topped it the most puts that gender disparity on full display: the Red Hot Chili Peppers (13 No. 1s), followed by Linkin Park and Green Day (11 each), the Foo Fighters (10), and U2 (8).
And because today’s alt radio relies so heavily on old hits, this past is kind of inescapable. Last week, so-called “gold” songs — tracks approximately at last two years old — made up 53 percent of spins across U.S. alternative stations. Of the top 100, only three feature female vocalists: Bishop Briggs’ “River,” Of Monsters & Men’s “Little Talks,” and Paramore’s “Misery Business.” This version of alt-rock’s history is so skewed, it neglects even the genre’s few legitimate commercial stars. “They don’t play Alanis Morissette, they don’t play Garbage, they don’t play Fiona Apple,” says k.flay. “They play Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Soundgarden.”
If program directors are fixated on the ‘90s — in all their white, male flannel-clad glory — it’s partially due to their listeners. As Millennials and Gen Z flock to streaming services for music discovery, alternative radio listeners are more likely to be old enough to remember all of those RHCP hits from the first time around. “If there was a younger demo, if there were more females, the way a station sounds would probably change,” Matsuki says. “This is just what I think — females listening to alternative stations tend to speak up less than the male audience… If you look at a typical station website, it’s catered more towards men: dark background, dark colors, some kind of horrible, sexist advertisement on the side. I rarely see a website that looks like something a girl would go to.”