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Why Are Country Award Show Nominees So Predictable?

The Academy of Country Music announced the nominees for the 53rd ACM Awards this morning. To be expected, most of the nominees come from the same group of people you expect to see at the CMA Awards. And the ACM Awards from years before. And the CMA Awards from…well, you get the point.

So why do these award shows keep nominating the same handful of artists year after year? And why do women routinely only make up about 20% of nominees in categories that include both men and women?

A Voting Process Tied To Radio

The nominee pool for these award shows feels increasingly shallow, and that’s because ACM Awards nominees are directly tied to country radio. Which, if you haven’t realized after trying to listen to country radio for more than 30 minutes, also offers a depressingly shallow pool of options.

For every single artist category, “The factors to be considered include, but are not limited to, success at radio,” according ACM Awards eligibility criteria. Some categories exclusively use radio as a gatekeeper. For instance, Single Record of the Year nominees must chart in the Top 20 of the Billboard Hot Country or Mediabase charts.

The workaround outside of charting on country radio is selling 100,000 units of a record, which isn’t much of a workaround nowadays, considering only a dozen or so country records hit that mark every year. (That’s how Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey And You” from 2015’s Traveller snagged a not-so-surprising surprise nomination for Song of the Year).

So, for the ACM Awards especially, success is directly tied to commercial performance in the most traditional sense. Awards like The Grammys, on the other hand (which still have their fair share of improving to do), accept literally any record released in the eligibility period.

The Problem Is Cyclical

Women continue to get little love, both among nominees and actual winners. Consider the most prized award of the night: Entertainer of the Year. Women (or an act prominently featuring female artists) won Entertainer of the Year only 10 times since the category first appeared in 1970.

Only six different women or acts with females have been nominated for ACM Entertainer of the Year since 2000. They are: Shania Twain, Faith Hill, Dixie Chicks, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert. Each one of them conquered country radio, an increasingly difficult feat for women.

So record labels don’t send women to country radio because country radio is a generally bad place for women. And then country radio barely plays the women that do go out for adds. And then award shows are filled with dudes whose stars rise because they get screen time, because their nominations come with a country radio caveat.

Not Even Trying To Hide It Anymore

Perhaps the most obvious indication that the ACM isn’t even trying anymore: the New Male Vocalist category got five nominations, but the New Female Vocalist category only got four. They are: Lauren Alaina, Carly Pearce, Raelynn and Danielle Bradbery.

Since the ACM couldn’t be bothered to create a fair system, they couldn’t find a fifth woman who met their requirements, apparently. That leaves out incredibly talented women like Lindsay Ell, Ashley McBryde, Jillian Jacqueline and Caitlyn Smith, all of whom released really solid music in the past year.

Both the ACM Awards and CMA Awards earn millions of eyes thanks to their national television contracts, but the awards are indistinguishable at this point. Neither of them do much to champion new talent outside of one or two “new” major label artists each year.

Both organizations could take proactive steps to shine a light on independent talent and women. Instead, we get the same old, same old.

Catch the 53rd Annual ACM Awards on April 15th at 7 p.m. CST on CBS if you want to be completely unsurprised and see more of the usual.

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