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Martina McBride Stirs Battle with Spotify Over Gender Imbalance: ‘I’m Frustrated for My Sisters’

A male-dominated playlist sends the multi-platinum artist to Instagram to voice her outrage, but her real beef is with the entire country music industry. “There’s this archaic notion that women don’t like to hear other women,” she says. “I don’t believe it”

By Nancy Kruh on PEOPLE.COM September 16, 2019 12:30 PM

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All Martina McBride wanted to do was make a Spotify playlist that she could enjoy while cooking in her kitchen. Instead, she’s created a new flashpoint over the lack of women’s voices in country music.

But maybe that’s as it should be for the multi-platinum-selling artist known for fearlessly speaking her mind in such topical songs as “Independence Day” and “Concrete Angel.”

McBride reveals to PEOPLE how her small, private act unexpectedly turned into a public stand — a stand that has since blown up across the media and stirred renewed discussions around the issue.

All of it happened, she explains, simply because she chose to give her playlist the name “Country Music.” The prompt sent the Spotify algorithm in search of song recommendations. “And so I looked at the list, and it was all male artists, and I thought, hmm,” McBride recalls. “And then I refreshed and refreshed and refreshed.”

As page after page of songs by men kept appearing, “my heart started pounding, and I started thinking this can’t be right, this can’t be right,” she says.

Angry and incredulous, she started snapping photos of the 10-song lists and posting them, in real time, in an Instagram story. “It was like a complete gut reaction to what I was experiencing,” she says about her impulse to share it with her 354,000 followers.

The last photo in the series shows when the first song by a woman, “Church Bells” by Carrie Underwood, finally appeared. It was the 136th recommendation.

“Please help me understand,” McBride pleaded to Spotify on her Instagram story. “And I’m not doing this for me obviously. I’m sure I won’t show up on any recommendations anytime soon after today. I’m frustrated for my sisters. For all the great female artists who are making fabulous music. For all the female writers. And MOST OF ALL for every little girl out there who doesn’t hear this music and doesn’t know that SHE CAN GROW UP AND DO IT!!!”

Reaction from fans was swift, impassioned and supportive. Within 24 hours, the Instagram story was being picked up by television news and across the web.

Also within the next day, Brittany Schaffer, head of Spotify’s artist and label marketing in Nashville, reached out to McBride, and the singer reports, the two met last week over coffee. According to McBride, Schaffer tried to explain why the gender disparity had occurred on the streaming service’s playlist software and indicated “our engineers are trying to fix it.”

McBride, though, wasn’t appeased. Speaking to PEOPLE five days after her Instagram story appeared, she was troubled that Spotify had yet to respond with a public statement. “How come they haven’t come out and said, ‘We’re working on this,’ whether it’s true or not?” McBride says. “I find it shocking that they feel so indestructible that they don’t even take the time to make a comment about this.”

On Tuesday, Marian Dicus, Spotify’s global head of artist and label marketing, issued a statement to PEOPLE, saying, “We were very disappointed to hear about Martina’s experience on the platform. We agree that it’s unacceptable and we’re working to address it. As an industry, we recognize that we have a lot of work to do to ensure gender parity, and Spotify is working hard to drive change on our platform and through Spotify campaigns such as Equalizer and EQL.”

The Equalizer Project is a Spotify initiative to increase gender equality in music in Sweden; the EQL Directory is a global database created to draw focus to female audio and music professionals.

Still, McBride qualifies, her real beef isn’t with Spotify. What she experienced, she knows, is just symptomatic of an industry-wide problem.

The numbers tell the story. Women make up only 16 percent of recording artists and 12 percent of recorded songwriters in country, according to a new study of music from 2014 to 2018 by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Inclusion Initiative. That percentage is reflected in radio play during the same time period: Women performed on only 16 percent of the songs that appeared on Billboard’s year-end Hot Country charts.

“There’s this archaic notion that women don’t like to hear other women on the radio,” McBride says. “It’s been said before by consultants and radio programmers, and I don’t believe it.”

Neither do a growing number of influential voices in the industry who are trying to place more focus on female artists. Last year, CMT devoted its Artists of the Year Awards entirely to women. Country radio’s most popular DJ, Bobby Bones, also stepped up to produce a weekly iHeart Radio show featuring the music of female artists. More recently, the CMA announced its upcoming awards show will be dedicated to celebrating women in country music.

But as much as McBride welcomes the new attention, she also is concerned it’s a salve and not a solution. “I don’t want an hour a week of all women,” she says. “I don’t want one [awards] show that’s dedicated to women. I want an even playing field.”

McBride knows it’s possible because, to a great degree, she’s experienced it. When her career took off in the 1990s, women were well represented on the charts.

What was the difference? McBride has a theory: She believes the music made by each gender was far more complementary than it is now. Her anthems, she notes as an example, fit seamlessly in radio play with songs like Alan Jackson’s “Remember When” and Tim McGraw’s “Live Like You Were Dying.”

“We had a counterpart,” McBride says. “It wasn’t shocking to hear a female song because they all kind of worked together. Sonically, they worked together. Lyrically, they worked together.”

That means, to McBride, part of the remedy today needs to emerge from songwriting rooms, where more songs, obviously, are being written for men than women. But an even bigger role, she believes, must be played by country fans, who can demand change.

“I think we need to figure out a way to empower them to speak out about what is important to them, which is hearing the female perspective,” she says. “That’s what’s so sad for me. You have a whole big stretch of time where we’ve heard so little of the female perspective on the radio. That’s not good for society. It’s not good for art. It’s just not good.”

McBride recognizes her time on the radio is long over, “and I have no reason to be bitter,” she says. “I had my day.”

She knows how lucky she’s been. But her heart is breaking for all the gifted young female artists she’s encountered who so far haven’t been given the opportunities she enjoyed.

“That’s why I’m speaking out,” she says. “I’m not doing this for me. These girls … How do they fight for themselves? How do you fight for yourself when you’re up against the power that can control your career? I see how hard they work and how much it means to them and how talented they are. And, you know, they should have a shot.”