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Saturday, July 2, 2022

A critique of the critique ‘industry plant’

Aarthee Pari discusses the meaning of the term 'industry plant' and its validity as a critique of musicians.

It’s a well-known fact that the rags-to-riches glossy tale Hollywood loves telling over and over again and those sold in the music industry are no different. They both feature a protagonist to idolise and a struggle to empathise with, all told through a rose-coloured lens. Every generic talent show never fails to draw out the budding talent’s emotional journey with the traditional cut to sombre music as they introduce the humanising sob story, often depicting situations that were likely to hold the artist back from stardom. If this story, the ‘could have almost never been’, is what everyone wants, would it be such a big deal if we made it up?

The term ‘industry plant’ and the ways in which it is used are controversial topics among music fans. At face value, an ‘industry plant’  appears to be an artist who pretends to be independent but is actually industry-backed, and lies about their origins, because the ‘self-made’ narrative is more attractive to consumers of music. However, in recent years the term has been applied much more liberally. So what really is an industry plant?

The first time I heard the term ‘industry plant’ I was blissfully minding my own business, glad to be out of the third lockdown, and then suddenly bombarded with articles and videos about a band called the Tramp Stamps and everything wrong with them. The female trio was quickly accused of being an industry plant by many on TikTok after releasing their song ‘I’d Rather Die’. It was the band’s movie-esque origin story – “three girls got drunk at a bar and wrote a song” – and the polished nature of their website and Instagram account, combined with the fact that they’d all been singers and songwriters in the industry before forming the group, that raised suspicions. Alongside the fact that the music… wasn’t that good. The accusations led to many digging deeper to find more ‘cancellable’ things about the band, such as several Tweets from lead singer Maino in which she uses an anti-Black slur and implies that she supported Trump.

I was intrigued by the term ‘industry plant’: what did it mean? Why was it being thrown at the three women? Why was it inherently a bad thing? However, after the allegations surrounding Maino, I quickly lost interest in the controversy around the band and didn’t hear the term again until a few months ago when I was introduced to Gayle’s song ‘abcdefu’ via Instagram’s sponsored ads. The song is a catchy pop tune, which, though written about a romantic ex, has a chorus that you could easily shout at anyone you’re upset with. I quickly fell into a YouTube spiral and soon found the interview she did on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I was endeared by Gayle and her incredulity about her success when she said “I’ve pretended that I’ve been sitting on this couch for like years in my house and now I’m here!?”. We all have dreams, and I was happy that hers had come true. 

So this time, when my friend suggested to me that her quick rise to fame may actually have occurred because she is an industry plant, I felt betrayed, although I didn’t know why. I think it may have been because the idea of an industry plant connotes some sort of malice, implying that the artist particularly wanted to trick me into liking them when there’s actually nothing to like about them – as seemed to be the case with the Tramp Stamps – or that they’re covering up a lack of ‘real’ talent or authenticity. In reality, Gayle started singing at 7, released several self-produced singles, and was discovered by former American Idol judge Kara DioGuardi before signing to Atlantic Records. She has the backstory of almost every modern wannabe popstar. But it felt like the rule was her quick rise to fame and successful major-label debut single meant she wasn’t deserving of her success.

So what does it really mean to be an industry plant? Is it presenting yourself as an independent artist when you’re actually backed by a major label, like Chance the Rapper did? Or is it a term to label someone whose organic origin story (even if this includes being backed up by a label) isn’t quite representative of the reality?  Or is it actually just a term we’ve started using to describe the music of an artist we didn’t like in the first place – just another negative to stack against them, and maybe even something we can use to justify our dislike of them? It is worth noting that the majority of artists who seem to have this criticism levelled against them tend to be women; is this indicative of a misogynistic refusal to accept female success? 

Two current female artists who’ve been branded with the label include Olivia Rodrigo, previously a Disney Channel star from the hit show High School Musical The Musical: The Series, and Billie Eilish, the seven-time Grammy winner who blew up after her debut single ‘Ocean Eyes’. Both had debut singles which garnered unexpected levels of success, launching them into the spotlight. They both signed to labels and released a debut album and EP respectively to wide acclaim. And soon afterwards, both faced criticism. The biggest issue raised regarding both artists was the speed with which their songs gained traction, which led many to conclude that the only way they managed to get where they did was through an enormous amount of money from their labels and industry training connections. I would argue that both artists have been incredibly privileged with their access to the industry, but this doesn’t mean they qualify for the criticism of being ‘industry plants’. 

It’s true that Eilish’s debut hit ‘Ocean Eyes’ was written and produced by her brother Finneas, who is now also an acclaimed singer-songwriter and record producer. He gave it to his sister to sing when her dance teacher asked her to write a song for a choreography. Many have brought up the fact that Eilish was in dance classes from a young age, along with being born and homeschooled by actor-musician parents, to suggest that the singer was being trained for success from childhood. Whilst I agree this sort of familial support is something that is not available to everyone, it doesn’t seem fair to criticise Eilish for following a path she was encouraged onto. That would imply that everyone should be demanded to pursue alternative paths to their parents, which is ridiculous. The bigger problem is surely that these benefits are often reserved for children of those in the industry.

Meanwhile, Rodrigo’s debut song ‘drivers license’  broke Spotify’s record twice for most daily streams ever for a non-holiday song and debuted at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 within a week of its release. It may have seemed as though Rodrigo appeared out of the woodwork, but her success was aided by her role on Disney + and the opportunities she had to write and record songs for the soundtrack of High School Musical The Musical: The Series. Her ability to be in these rooms and make connections, no doubt, massively boosted her rise to fame.

Both Eilish and Rodrigo also benefitted from the changing landscape of mainstream music. Eilish’s track was released on Soundcloud and then slowly gained traction and a following for Eilish through that platform, while Rodrigo posted a snippet (now deleted) of her debut single to Instagram helping to develop interest in the song before it was released. The success of both artists’ debut singles, therefore, occurred in large part because of the speed at which songs can acquire a following in the technological age. Rodrigo was also already popular in existing fanbases such as Taylor Swift’s ‘Swifties’, and so benefitted from their support, as they shared the release of the song on social media. I, for one, was influenced to listen to the song after seeing a Swiftie fan account post about it. Similarly, Eilish and her brother Finneas saw their lives change as the streams on their song kept exponentially rising day after day, pushing them into the industry; on the back of her single’s success, Eilish was offered an abundance of record deals to choose from. Speed of transmission, both of music and support for a musician, is no longer a limiting factor as it might have been before. It doesn’t make sense to expect, and even demand, a slow and steady rise when things are made to move quickly and exponentially through the Internet. 

Nevertheless, even if these things are true, it is still the case that female artists see much less support than others. It’s telling that while many artists are blowing up much faster in the age of social media, young female artists like Rodrigo and Eilish are much more often singled out to have the validity of their success questioned. Only a few weeks ago Blur’s Damon Albarn made headlines with his comments questioning Taylor Swift’s authenticity, claiming that she is not a ‘real’ songwriter because she occasionally co-writes, and said he preferred “a really interesting songwriter” like “Billie Eilish and her brother”. Albarn pit the two female artists against each other and seemed to imply that Eilish’s songwriting was superior on account of the influence of her brother, rather than an industry professional.  I would argue that her brother is understood to be an industry professional, and it’s hypocritical to criticise Swift for co-writing songs on the sole basis that she isn’t related to her songwriting partners.

It seems, therefore, that the critique ‘industry plant’ has moved from being a specific term about a certain practice to becoming mixed up in the messy bigotry that pervades criticism in general. It has become a term that can be levelled at anyone who operates in the industry, regardless of their journey into it – and targets certain categories of people more often than others.

There are many different routes into the music industry. There are those who seem just to strike luck; they get spotted by the right person, get a deal, and are almost immediately successful. Others go through a sort of music industry factory. Bands formed in shows like The X Factor and American Pop Idol or through the Disney Channel often get noticed at young ages and almost ‘taught’ how to be a pop star. They’re given the tools, like A-list writers and producers, that mould them to become money-making machines for those who took a chance on them. It’s unclear if these artists should be considered plants too, or whether the fact that they have been through a highly visible and public competition like The X Factor makes them more deserving than someone who is spotted by a label and given all those tools and lessons behind the scenes. 

Of course, many artists spend years and years gigging and working and seeing very little return, maybe for most or even all their career. A lack of funds and connections means that many of those with the talent to succeed find themselves constrained by the barrier of money. The story of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, seems almost a cautionary tale in this regard. Joy Division was a band with undoubtable potential, but no financial backing. When things took a turn for the worse in Curtis’ personal life with worsening epilepsy, drug and alcohol issues and marital problems, the pressure drove him to suicide.  His death came the day before Joy Division was to leave for a North American tour that could have changed everything for them. If an influential label had noticed the band early on and stepped in to provide support to mitigate the financial and psychological strains of a career in music, things might have been easier for Curtis. There is, of course, no telling if the label would have effectively helped Curtis this way, but given that the band went on to become a powerful force, with the first album Curtis featured on being considered ‘essential parts of the post-punk canon’, it seems probable that help in the early days could have resulted in the band having an even larger influence than it does now.

The question then arises whether in Joy Division’s case, if a major label had stepped in and eased the burdens, this would have made them unworthy of success. It is possible to argue that a label’s help might actually have been a hindrance if they had stepped in and changed the sound of the band to fit mainstream radio playlists at the time. However, by suggesting that ‘authentic’ artists are the ones who never take help, or alter their music to have the opportunity to be promoted by big labels with big budgets, surely we’re putting up a barrier to success? 

If we insist that anyone who ‘makes it’ must have done it all themselves to be ‘authentic’, surely we are at risk of putting the potential for success only in the hands of the already privileged. Think of Taylor Swift and the incredible sacrifices her family made for her music career, moving from Pennsylvania to Nashville to help her break into country music. The opportunity to move to the home of the genre of music you’re making, a place filled with record label executives, producers, and songwriters, is something beyond the wildest dreams of many. The opportunity to relocate and dedicate time and money to pursuing a career in this way is something only the most privileged will be able to do without the help of industry backing.

By synonymising the experience of trying to ‘make it’ yourself with success, we are romanticising what is an overly draining and difficult process. Desiring this tale of independence from the elites ignores the systemic issues at play within the industry that limit the ability of certain artists to succeed, while others prevail at the same time as narrating stories that don’t address their privilege. Little Simz, for example, was recently awarded ‘Best New Artist’ at the 2022 Brit Awards despite releasing her first album in 2014. She is not new to the music industry, but only to the mainstream consciousness. Simz resisted signing to a big label for years, instead choosing to release music through her own Age 101 record label. However, in 2018 she and her label signed a deal with AWAL Recordings. Since then the difference AWAL has made can be seen in her rise to popularity, with many only discovering her music after 2018, and has eventually led to her Brit award.

There is no doubt that Little Simz has worked incredibly hard to get to where she is; she herself says in her song ‘How Did You Get Here’ that “Nothing in life comes easy, and you work twice as hard ’cause you Black”. So when another artist who hasn’t experienced the same kinds of struggles manufactures a story they know nothing about, it is particularly offensive to those who have. But it seems that this conversation should go deeper than simply vilifying those who do accept the help and support from a major label that promises to give them the tools for success. These people are often those who have been on this path for a long time with no returns, and so understandably are willing to do what it takes to get their breakthrough. 

And even if there is an issue with those who actively lie – most often on the advice of the label who controls their paychecks – and even if many of these supposed ‘plants’ have been chasing a career in the industry for years, it seems that these phenomena are not enough to quell the criticism of the ‘industry plant’, which seems to have become more than the sum of its parts. A few weeks ago, I was privy to a conversation with friends about the suspected industry-planted band Wet Leg, who appeared out of nowhere with the viral 2021 song ‘Chaise Longue’. Having already spent some time considering the justifiability of the term being used as a criticism, I asked whether it mattered if the band had been ‘planted’. One friend responded that it felt wrong, that they hadn’t gigged for years like others and been through that struggle. It seems therefore that the very idea of having your path made easier with money is a turn-off. Despite this, ‘Chaise Longue’ is still a regular on our pres playlist. Clearly, while a source of moral discomfort, suspicions of ‘planting’ are not a deal-breaker when it comes to the consumption of music. 

But why does the industry feel the need to plant artists in this way? It seems the answer is: profits. It’s no secret that the music industry loves to find what is selling and make more of it. When Olivia Rodrigo first released ‘drivers license’, it wasn’t long before her narrative style of songwriting was compared to that of Taylor Swift. It was clear that her management didn’t tell her to shy away from the comparison, as she spoke of Swift in numerous interviews and even played a role alongside Conan Gray in the promotion of the eleven-time Grammy award winner’s re-recorded version of her album Fearless. Many have even likened Rodrigo to Lorde, with one Reddit user commenting that ‘they got tired waiting for lorde so they replaced her’. This idea of copying what is already popular isn’t a new phenomenon. The Monkees were created after The Beatles’ films A Hard Day’s Night and Help! inspired television producers Rafelson and Schneider to revive Rafelson’s idea for The Monkees, a situation comedy series following the adventures of four young men trying to make a name for themselves as a rock ‘n roll band. They even sported the same bowl haircuts and four-member band composition and seemed to conveniently fill the space the Beatles had left vacant as they became more experimental (for the time) with records like ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Revolver’. 

This concept of being manufactured for mass consumption is a criticism often levelled at industry plants; it is suggested that in chasing to replicate what already exists, what is produced is a copy lacking substance rather than something truly original. One Reddit user highlighted the dilemma with the comment “I also think Ava Max as [sic] industry plant! She’s talented but I genuinely don’t understand how she is topping charts, her music is not memorable at all to me”. The writer of this remark seems to be identifying the contradiction the music industry creates, by picking people with talent and originality and then forcing them into boxes, either through confining them to a certain genre or giving them pre-written songs which they know will sell. 

Perhaps this is indicative of the bigger problem with the outsized power of major record labels’ ability to influence popular culture through refined music distribution techniques that an amateur simply can’t compete with. The obsession with profit – a staple of every capitalist industry – reduces people into products simply to be sold and bought. We might therefore think that our labelling of some artists as ‘industry plants’ furthers this cycle of dehumanising consumerism. Surely the criticism should lie not with the artists, but with the industry itself, and the environment it creates in which there is such an excess supply of talent that often the only condition for success is an abundance of money, extensive knowledge of distribution techniques, and numerous connections in the industry: resources that major labels have a monopoly on. 

Users on Reddit, the source of all opinions, disagree on the question of whether it matters if someone is an industry plant, provided that their music is enjoyable. In the cases of Gayle and Wet Leg, whether or not their backstories are manufactured, there’s no denying that their music was popular enough to go viral, and that was because ordinary people shared and consumed and enjoyed it. Some maintain that if an artist misrepresents their story, their lies are unforgivable. Others believe music can be judged at face value, and if it’s in itself enjoyable, then it should be enjoyed. I find myself siding with the latter perspective, since when one starts to appreciate the power and influence of industry-backed support, it’s hard not to sympathise with the artists who take it – the people who are often just trying to follow their ambitions. 

The problem everyone seems to be circling around, whatever their view of ‘industry plants’, is that they would rather not be duped by some big corporate machine that thinks it knows what they like. But instead of blaming the industry, the criticism gets branded onto the artist. Surely the problem that needs addressing is why the industry feels the need to lie about the artists they sign. Perhaps it is because we, in our efforts to avoid these ‘fakes’, have placed too much value on the ‘breakthrough story’ that wouldn’t have to exist if the industry effectively supported those with original talent, without leaving them to graft for years by themselves. It seems that we have yet again been hoodwinked into not seeing the core problem: capitalist exploitation and its distortive effects on the creative arts. 

Ultimately, in a creative industry so closely tied to the romantic and make-believe and full of artistic dreamers, it’s near impossible to know what is fabricated and what is true. Even for those of us outside the industry, our daily anecdotes to each other are riddled with small omissions and a little bit of Hollywood storytelling. It seems that the music industry has given us only what we were telling them we wanted, without us interrogating why we wanted it. 

The real issue with industry planting that needs to be addressed is how it plays a part in the widespread nepotism and bigotry that decides who succeeds over whom through the allocation of resources. Why do some artists get given the story while others actually live it? That’s the important problem here, but it’s not mutually exclusive with the enjoyment of what is created by those who have already had those resources gifted to them. If what they make is good, I don’t think it needs to prove itself as revolutionary or seek to transform the way we view the art of music. If you love it, and music be the food of love, quite simply, ‘play on’.

Image Credit: Crommelincklars, CC BY 2.0.

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