There’s been a lot of chat on music fan message boards recently about the idea of the ‘industry plant.’ This is an accusation, levelled at certain breakthrough musicians, that they’ve been concocted by the industry itself. Originating in the rap world, the idea is that if a new artist suddenly seems to be everywhere, a label is secretly manipulating this in the background. A brilliant band I’ve recently had the pleasure of working on have been accused of it. For reasons of propriety, I won’t name names here, though a simple bit of internet detection would reveal all.
In my experience, it’s mainly female artists who get called industry plants. This is because it’s essentially an internet troll’s term, and there’s a large overlap in the Venn diagram between people who post negative comments on the internet and misogynists. The same probably applies for angry keyboard warriors and failed musicians. Thwarted creativity can quickly turn dark. It can’t be a question of quality – it must be something to do with ‘the game.’
The idea is a fallacy. The first question that springs to mind is this one: If it was possible to create ‘industry plants,’ why wouldn’t the industry be doing it far more often? If labels could whip up hype on demand, trust me, it would be top of our to-do list every day. It would save a lot of money spent on streaming departments, PR, radio pluggers, digital marketeers and dozens of hardworking staff.
The accusation has been made against artists like Santigold and Lady Gaga, both of whom wrote for others before becoming performing artists themselves. Most of us would recognize this as simple career progression, borne of hard work and experience. No one would claim that an assistant retail manager becoming the boss had been somehow installed by arcane forces. The same applies for artists who’ve tried out different guises, line-ups and personas. Ever heard of perfecting through failure?
More recently accused are former child stars like Olivia Rodrigo and overnight sensations such as Billie Eilish. Having pre-existing stardom or great, fresh songs that labels want a piece of doesn’t make you a plant though.
The closest examples I’ve ever witnessed involved carefully planned launches being given organic façades. Lily Allen was claimed to have ‘broken’ on MySpace, though was already signed when her major label used the new platform as a tool. For most of us, that’s just clever – if cynical – marketing.
There is an icky side to the music business: wealth, connections and nepotism all play their part. Largely, they provide access to the industry and improve the chances of getting a shot at success. From there, it’s all down to the public though. You can’t make people like something, and even the greatest Svengali can’t polish the proverbial.
If an artist appears out of nowhere, that usually means a label has been doing its job. It didn’t simply latch on to an act with ‘audience’ and rocketing streaming numbers. Hell, it might even have done some development.
I’m fascinated by the level of influence certain internet warriors credit labels with having – as if they can simply deploy their shadowy networks and order up huge playlisting results at radio and streaming, media coverage and fan demand. All of these things are won (far, far more often not) through blood, sweat and tears. The only exception is when you sign someone truly great. Sometimes an artist comes along who simply and quickly grabs a great many people. Billie Eilish is an excellent example.
And that’s what should give everyone who loves music faith. If an artist creates something utterly brilliant – with all of the savvy, spirit, timing and singularity that word implies – and unveils it to the world, people will pay attention. I’ve seen it happen recently, and it’s wonderful. The problem is that it is far easier said than done.