Country Artists Condemn LGBT Laws, But Labels Remain Silent

miley and billy ray cyrus GETTY - H 2016
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Their silence underscores a divide between the creative class of artists who can use their platform to speak out and an industry that must be careful about taking a position.

Several country music artists and songwriters have condemned proposed laws that critics say discriminate against LGBT people, but anyone looking for reaction from the record labels and production companies on Nashville's Music Row has heard only the sound of silence.

New laws in North Carolina and Mississippi have drawn the ire of businesses and celebrities alike, with Bruce Springsteen and Bryan Adams canceling recent shows in those states. Legislation dealing with the treatment of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people was vetoed by Georgia's governor, but bills are still being considered in Tennessee and South Carolina.

Numerous artists with ties to Nashville have denounced the proposals there, which would ban transgender people from using restrooms that don't conform to their sex at birth and would allow counselors to refuse services to LGBT people on religious grounds. Among them: Emmylou Harris, Billy Ray Cyrus and his pop star daughter Miley Cyrus, and actor Chris Carmack of ABC's Nashville.

Gretchen Peters, a singer-songwriter who has written such hits as Martina McBride's "Independence Day," said the bills being considered in Tennessee are deeply personal to her as the mother of a 31-year-old transgender man.

"The people who are at risk are people like my son who would really be called out publicly, and anyone who is a trans person knows that can escalate into a really dangerous situation," she said. "I live in fear of that as a mother."

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, one of the LGBT organizations pressuring the country music industry, said the support of the artists is important. But she said the industry's top companies need to speak out.

"It's not a game they have been in before, but it's going to have a big impact on their city, so I think they are right now educating themselves on what the topics are and what the issues are," said Ellis.

Numerous record labels — Universal Music Group Nashville, Warner Music Nashville, Sony Music Nashville, Curb Records or Big Machine Label Group — would not comment on the issue when asked by The Associated Press. Their silence underscores a divide between the creative class of artists who can use their platform to speak out and an industry that must be careful about taking a position.

That resistance to speak out might not be entirely based on concerns about losing their audience, said Diane Pecknold, an associate professor in women's and gender studies at the University of Louisville and co-editor of the book, A Boy Named Sue: Gender and Country Music.

Contemporary country music fans are far more diverse than the stereotype of conservative, rural and blue-collar workers, she said.

"I don't think they are afraid of their audience because the artists that have come out in favor of LGBT rights have not suffered in any way," said Pecknold. However, she said, the industry may be reluctant to alienate politicians or political groups they rely on to help with business-related legislation.

Bills like those dealing with which bathrooms transgender people can use also are tricky because they don't have the same appeal as other LGBT rights issues like gay marriage, said Nadine Hubbs, professor of Women's Studies and Music at University of Michigan and author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music.

"It's not the sort of sanctified realm of marriage and two people who love each other," she said. "It doesn't have the golden glow around it."

Activists are pushing hard on the economic impact, saying such legislation can hurt tourism, make it harder for businesses to recruit employees or discourage businesses from investing money and production in the state. And not all in the entertainment industry have stood silent.

Live Nation, which operates music venues and produces concerts all over the country, said in a statement that it supports artists like Springsteen and Adams who choose to cancel shows. It said the company "supports our artists' efforts to take a stand against this exclusionary and unfair law."

Country Music Television and its parent company Viacom released a statement last week that said the bathroom bill was "inconsistent with our values." And the Country Music Association, which promotes country music around the world and sponsors the annual CMA Awards and CMA Festival, also weighed in.

"CMA is not a lobbying organization, but we are working closely with the City of Nashville to offer all of our visitors and residents an inclusive environment where they feel welcome," Sarah Trahern, CMA's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Peters, who has been vocal about her support of transgender rights, said she understands why many in country music are hesitant to get involved.

"I understand why people say, 'I will alienate some of my fan base," said Peters. "Yeah, I have lost some fans, but I have gained about 10 times as many. There are people who are just so happy to see someone be vocal about this."

Update: The RIAA and The Music Business Association (Music Biz) issued the following comment on April 14:

“Music serves as a unifying force across the world, bringing people together regardless of who they are.  We believe the focus should be supporting and celebrating that diversity rather than advancing bills that sanction discrimination.”