"The things about women not wanting to hear women and silly things like you can't play two women in a row. Obviously none of that has ever been proven. There's no research that says that" In conversation with Leslie Fram

One name has consistently cropped up throughout my conversations with artists for the 2019 edition of Women in country & Americana, and that name is Leslie Fram. As Senior Vice President, Music and Talent at CMT Leslie has been at the forefront of their push to include more female artists in their programming. One of the key vehicles has been the hugely successful CMT Next Women of Country, which has been running for seven years. Having heard so much about Leslie and her work we just had to talk to her about it. [Ed - quick note, if you're reading this in outside the USA the links to the CMT website will redirect to YouTube, we haven't broken them.]

Hey Leslie, hope you're well. There's a lot of talk about the lack of airplay and opportunity at the minute for women, isn't there?

Hello! I think there's a lot of discussion and a couple of years ago the Annenberg study that talked about the lack of females in general that were being nominated for Grammys, everything from producers and engineers to musicians. So I feel that a lot of Task Forces have happened and the Grammys have come a long way since then and done a great job. I think it's now kind of trickling into other areas as well.

I was going to ask whether it's a specific problem for country music or is it across genres?

It's being affected on all genres. It's been like that in rock and alternative and triple-A for many years. It's just been really prominent in country music.

Can you explain your role at CMT?

I'm Senior Vice President, Music and Talent and I oversee music on all of our platforms and in our talent team. We work on booking all of our events and tentpoles, so anything from the CMT Music Awards to any Crossroads or events. We handle all the bookings for all the music and the talent.

How do you and your team go about finding artists? Do you go out and find artists, do people come to you with artists to book for these sorts of things?

A little of both on who we actually support. We have a couple of different music franchises we have the Next Women of Country franchise that's been around since 2013. We have Listen Up which is an emerging artist franchise, we have an unsigned franchise for bands that are unsigned called Artist Discovery we work with a lot of publishers in town. Obviously the music team is out almost nightly, and in Nashville there are so many showcases and shows and people just readily available but we're always out. People send us stuff, we discover things. There's a little buzz and we also have some on demand playlists on Apple Music and Spotify where we showcase a lot of these artists that we're supporting as well.

I know that you used to work in radio. How did you get into country music and working for CMT?

I did mainly rock and alternative radio for many years. Alternative Radio in Atlanta and New York, a few years in top 40. I was in New York working at a radio station that sold and they changed the format to news talk. So I was sort of at a crossroads and this opportunity came up to oversee music at CMT, and I loved Nashville. I knew a little bit about country music, but not a lot. So I just said yes and spent about a year with my head down meeting a whole new set of people, going to a ton of shows, listening to a lot of music and really fell in love with the songwriting community here and the music and the artists.

That must have been a fun year, immersing yourself in a new town and new music?

Yeah it really was. It was really eye-opening because it's such an inclusive format and an amazing community of people. The work ethic of the artists is unbelievable, they work really hard. What's unbelievable is how the superstars usher in the new artists, whether it's on tour or helping them in general, or coming out to support their shows, and obviously the writing community is so collaborative. It's really unlike anything you've ever seen before. So I feel really fortunate to be doing this and be in this format.

You're right, a lot of the people I talk to say how great the community is and how people just work really well together. Did that make it a bit of a surprise that there's this divide on radio around women getting played?

I think that we're all a little surprised by it, if only because women are making such great music, and if you look at all the artists that had huge success in the 90s there really shouldn't be a reason that women aren't supported now. Especially knowing that you have Kacey Musgraves, who just won Album Of The Year overall at the Grammys and put out such a brilliant record last year. I think we're all a little surprised by it and really trying to do what we can at CMT to continue our support whether it's through videos or content we push out. We have a tour that's in its fifth year that really helps a lot of these artists go out on tour because it's tough to get on tour if you don't have a song on the radio. So I feel like our support there has been great in the touring world. Our headliner this year is an independent artist Cassadee Pope and we're taking it to the UK for the first time.

The line-up of the UK leg of CMT Next Women in Country (Cassadee, Logan Brill and Twinnie) really showed the quality of female artists in country music at the moment as well, the depth of talent. Iit's not just the headliner, there are lots of other people coming through as well with the potential to be just as good.

Well I went to our sold out show at the Gramercy Theater in New York recently. Sold out. Men, women, singing every word to every song. I mean it proves the popularity of these artists, the fans are there. So I think we're at a time where we shouldn't be speaking to the fans. We should let the fans decide you know what they want to hear and they're clearly supporting these artists.

How important do you think it is that women are touring more and more with women? So Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Carrie Underwood, are doing all female tours.

It really says a lot when you have a superstar like Carrie who is taking out Maddie & Tae and Runaway June. Maren is doing her all-female tour. She just announced another leg taking out even more new artist which is tremendous. It's such great exposure for Cassadee Pope, Raelynn and Kassi Ashton. Then you have artists like Brandi Carlile doing an all-female festival and Miranda Lambert has been taking out all women for years. But a lot of the male artists are now taking women out, Keith Urban has been a huge supporter for many years, Dierks Bentley.

In the UK is our radio system is very different to the US. We don't have much of a genre thing going on, it's predominantly mixed genre stations. From the all-female tours and female artist winning awards and things, does radio really matter in the States?

It's really huge, especially in country. It's the number one driver for music discovery. It's tough for people to spend a lot of their time trying to discover music and it's so great when you have a curator or somebody that's really introducing you to new music. We need to get better at playlisting women as well. But radio is still the number one driver.

I know you did an all female artist of the year on CMT in 2018. Was that an important step as well to to kind of change that up a bit from the get male dominated stuff?

I truly feel that you know in order to have a shift and really start something that takes us back to where we were, which is that sort of inclusive nature, that you have to make some bold steps and for us we felt like it was the right thing to do and it really paid off. The ratings were our highest ratings and honestly there was a lot of diversity on that show. Which is really what makes a great playlist or a great radio station is diversity.

I was going to ask you about ratings because I guess ultimately that's the crux of a lot of this stuff isn't it; that radio thinks it will lose listeners if it plays female artists.

Oh yeah. I think we do have a lot of these myths out there that become self-fulfilling prophecies. You know, the things about women not wanting to hear women and silly things like you can't play two women in a row. Obviously none of that has ever been proven. There's no research that says that. I think that it just again becomes this thing where people say it enough and people believe it, but I don't want us to train people not to hear female voices. And it is really tough when you'll hear a couple of hours of all male voices. Coincidentally that ends up hurting the guys. Getting back to something that's more balanced and diverse is really just great programming. And that's diversity of both sound and diversity of gender.

That's a really important point as well isn't it. Because it's there is a lot of homogenous sound in country music radio?

Absolutely. We have so many great female songwriters and artists. If you hear some of the diversity in the great music that Maren Morris is putting out, and everyone from signed to unsigned acts, the music that the women are putting out is extraordinary. We just want it to be heard to let the fans decide and we've always said let the best songs rise to the top. Male or female that there just needs to be an equal playing field.

Can you tell me a bit about CMT Next Women in Country?

We started the franchise in 2013 and then this is the fifth year of the tour. This will be the first year we're taking it to the UK, so we feel that every year we build on it and make more things happen. Trust me, some of these artists will tell you it's the first tour that they've had the ability to be on. Which is you know again can be life-changing, to have that exposure.

The reality is that a lot of artists that come in particular to the UK just wouldn't be able to afford to without some kind of support from somebody. So I guess that's where the Next Women in Country helps bridge that gap, just giving people a safety net of being able to do that.

As much as I think that every artist should tour the UK for the exposure, because the fans are there, some of them just can't do it financially. As you said, even if you just go over with a couple of players and tour. In a band it can be a little bit expensive but if you can make that happen and do it and I know how much support there is over there for these artists more and more of them are trying to have that opportunity to go over there and build a fan base.

Is there anyone that you've you've featured hasn't really made it as big as you thought, that you were you surprised about?

No, because sometimes it's circumstance. You know if they're signed sometimes, it's just a matter of releases and having an opportunity to have release dates with their music and some of them are growing with their music and their writing. I think some of them have just had better opportunities than others. But quietly what we do is, that people don't realize, is support them throughout the year, give them more exposure in the live scene. we're putting them in front of tastemakers or sponsors and that really helps a lot of them as well.

I'm gonna ask you a question you probably won't want to answer, but if you had to pick one person from this year that people should really go and listen to you would you pick?

I'll tell you two of them that are kind of raising their hand, with amazing songwriting and live performance this past year: Ingrid Andress and Tenille Townes.

And we're not married to them being a mainstream country sound. I mean we've had some artists that lean more alt-country. Ingrid, interesting fact, two years ago was in our unsigned artists discovery program with a song called 'The Stranger' and we've just followed her for the last two years, and we've always thought that she's been amazing.

I guess what's good for CMT is that eventually some of them are going to become massive, like Maren. So when you support them early on, they feel they've had that support and gives you that relationship with those artists as well.

Well I think they know that you know we have tried to be with them from the beginning. We met Maren when she was a songwriter at Big Yellow Dog and heard music early on and thought oh my gosh this is so undeniable and look where she is now. It's an amazing story and she deserves all the success.

Finally, what can you tell me about Change The Conversation"?

That's a meetup group that we started with a couple of friends, a journalist and a manager, to try to help some of these artists with mentorship and education. We do panels and some speaker series and, cause a lot of them really have a tough time understanding how to put a team together and what their next steps are. So we really sort of volunteer our time. We have a lot of industry professionals that volunteer their time as well, we've had everybody from Reba McEntire to Wanda Jackson just there trying to help.

Yeah. So do you have any specific objectives for that group or is it just to see what you can do?

We always joke around and say that our goal is not to have a conversation anymore. That there wouldn't be this issue of a lack of support for female artists. One of the things I think that we've all done even with CMT Next Women of Country is these artists all know that they're going through the same things. It's like, support each other. Instead of the idea that labels used to give, that there was only one slot for a female artist and it created this competitiveness. Now it's like no, a win for one is a win for all. So let's all support each other and that's what you see with the female community here, you see it on social all the time. But our goal, honestly, is really not to have the conversation anymore and to create an equal playing field.

If you want to find out more about Leslie you can check out her press page at CMT, or you can follow her on Twitter.

The CMT Music Awards just happened too, so to see highlights of them an much more visit the CMT YouTube channel.

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