There’s a certain romanticism that comes with our favourite musicians, more so than in other art forms. If you’ve been following them since day one and have been conscious of their independent grind, you almost feel part of their journey, sharing the numerous highs and lows. Many develop what feels like a personal connection through the honest and relatable tales strung throughout their songs. There’s bonds built on an unspoken belief in the truth of the lyrics and outside of pop many modern artist’s creditability is based on their authenticity. No more so in hip hop where ‘the come up’ and the perpetual grind is of importance in determining the ‘realness’ of an artist, a lucrative currency in the genre.
The desire for an underdog story can leave fans agitated when artists perceived to have had an impressive trajectory, independent of industry support are actually signed to major labels or have had financial backing. With the musical landscape changing massively through the development of the internet, there’s been an increase in allegations of artists being industry plants.
When attempting to establish a definition of ‘industry plant’, a quick glance across reddit, twitter and online forums will provide you with a diverse range of interpretations. However the consistencies between the interpretations illustrate a disdain for artists presenting organic growth despite strong financial backing, they have ties to influential players and move from obscurity to prominence in a short time. In truth the definition of industry plant varies conveniently based on who the accusation is aimed at and what grievances the accuser has.
The point of this piece is not to disprove the concept of an industry plant and it’s not to say that some of the definitions aren’t accurate in depicting industry behaviour, but rather to highlight the fact that it’s being misappropriated to discredit young artists. There is no doubt some artists had a head start, but often simply receiving industry support early on breeds accusations of being manufactured puppets without the capability to create quality music.
While it’s unquestionable Clairo had the advantage of her father’s experience working in marketing in the music industry and she could have been more transparent with this, but is an admission of this essential to legitimising her artistry? Assertions of industry plant status seem geared towards the idea that a young artist’s success is not believable and the only way to explain it is a wider conspiracy.
Lindsay Zolads nailed it when she asserted, “to believe that Geoff Cottrill was the mastermind behind “Pretty Girl” and that a dad-aged ad executive who also used to work for Starbucks’ Hear Music campaign knew exactly how to engineer a fool-proof viral video (“Just sing into this webcam when your hair’s real greasy. Everyone will love it.”) is to give the Olds, and maybe even the advertising industry, more credit than they deserve.”
More accurately the tag of industry plant fits the likes of One Direction, who were constructed with the clear intention of moulding the group to be chart topping stars that fit the demands of a mainstream audience, similarly with The Spice Girls. However there appears a tacit acceptance in pop music that this approach to artist development is to be expected, whereas as previously mentioned in hip hop a gradual, visibly clear rise is often a prerequisite to earning respect. And so the tag of industry plant is often slapped on artists whose hype appears to exceed their ability or substance, perceived to be successful only because of outside influences, not their own innate talent.
It’d be difficult to locate many major artists that haven’t received any industry backing. Even Chance The Rapper has been subject to allegations of being an industry plant. This is despite his independent status and steady rise among Chicago’s local scene prior to major success. With Chance, the presence of his well connected manager Pat is cited as part of his status as a plant. If the tag was reserved for those with well-connected people supporting them then just about every mildly successful artist in the game would fit the definition. In the case of Chance he ticks all of the desired boxes but there appears a reluctance to believe in his product and so it’s easier to tar him with the same brush that others have fallen victim to.
Even with artists signed to labels, the organisations simply give them the opportunity to be exposed to as many people as possible but if their end product isn’t up to scratch people won’t buy into an artist, no matter how much they are shoved down people’s throat. Look at the example of Carly Smithson (Who? Exactly). Despite MCA Records spending over $2 million on the production and promotion of Smithson’s debut album, it sold only 378 copies in its first three months. Success is not guaranteed, even with major backing.
Understandably a common retort to the aforementioned responses of plant status is that it is the deceptive nature of artist’s backing that sits uneasily with people. One that would hold true if it weren’t for the inconsistent application of the tag. Looking at the example of one of the world’s biggest star’s Billie Eilish, she has been on the receiving end of relentless accusations of industry plant status despite the fact she has been nothing but transparent about her background. There’s even videos online detailing her modest beginnings as an artist. There’s no debating the fact her career was accelerated by signing a deal but the inconsistency of the claims and their seemingly limitless scope in definition leaves them feeling hollow and of use only to undermine young artist’s success.
Industry plant allegations provide an easy answer to explain seemingly unbelievable success of young artists. Consequently these claims are black and white in their application, when it is in fact possible for Clairo and Billie Eilish to be a talented musicians that simultaneously benefit from their connections.
There is room to believe that there are manufactured artists out there, that have been deceptively moulded to create a commodified musical product. However the term industry plant has become so vague and widespread in its use that it’s become a lazy assertion from skeptical fans to undermine young artist’s achievements.