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(Credits: Far Out / Clay Banks)

Music

What is an 'industry plant'?

@SamWKemp

With success comes scrutiny: that’s a given. There’s something about suddenly seeing a previously unknown artist on every single magazine cover, radio playlist, and late-night talk show going that feels a little, I don’t know, untrustworthy. It’s as though the music industry were a great big game of Snakes and Ladders and certain artists have brought weighted dice to the table. Such musicians are often labelled ‘Industry Plants’, a term that entered popular usage through hip hop message board culture in the 2010s in reference to the likes of Lizzo, Chance the Rapper and Travis Scott.

Even in the early days, there was some debate about how best to define an Industry Plant. On a fundamental level, it is an artist whose development takes place away from the public eye. While the major label downplays its influence, it quietly hones the artist into a star. While their rise to fame might appear to be organic, it’s actually been meticulously planned by a major label. As a result, Industry Plants are usually regarded as lacking authenticity. In the eyes of genuinely DIY artists, the Plant is merely a puppet whose success results from someone high up in the music industry ensuring they have the best connections. The key element here is deception. New Zealand-born artist Lorde is frequently accused of being an Industry Plant, but Universal Music always made sure to be upfront about its role in her career. Lorde is little more than an example of a major label doing its job. It might be a little sickly but it’s not deceitful.

Industry Plants are usually artists who have only just started out in the industry, established a small fanbase in the depths of SoundCloud or Bandcamp and are then picked up by a major label and groomed to be a star. A Plant, therefore, can also be defined as an artist who doesn’t appear to have earned the guest features, lucrative sponsorships and big-budget producers from which they benefit. This too can lead to confusion. Countless musicians have been accused of being Industry Plants simply because their rise to fame looked a little unorthodox from the outside. In a Reddit thread titled ‘Wet Leg: the band with millions of streams and just two songs’, some users have questioned how the duo managed to earn millions of streams with just a couple of tracks on Spotify. “They’re industry plants or from a wealthy background (seems likely considering how posh they are),” one user wrote.

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It’s true that Wet Leg’s debut single seemed to – as countless publications noted – ‘come out of nowhere’, but the people who wrote it didn’t. Rhian Teasdale started out as a ballad-singing solo artist but found the experience of touring so lonely that she ended up asking her friend Hester Chambers to join her onstage. Teasdale’s piano balladry quickly died a death, but the partnership continued. Wet Leg may well have cottoned on to the post-punk trend and already formed the connections necessary to make a name for themselves. Still, it’s probably a bit strong to label them an industry plant without substantial evidence. After all, people have all kinds of reasons to belittle an artist’s value, especially when the artist are women making a name for themselves in a genre historically dominated by men. Chance The Rapper was also accused of being an Industry Plant after his modest grassroots following exploded overnight. Now the hype around him isn’t so intense, the accusations have rather, unsurprisingly, almost entirely disappeared.

‘Industry Plant’ is often used as a catch-all term for young artists signed to major labels who appear to have tapped into a dominant trend. For some, a Plant is someone who has signed to a major label at such an early age that they haven’t had a chance to establish their own artistic identity. Billie Eilish would be the obvious example, an artist who was signed to Interscope shortly after releasing ‘Ocean Eyes’, only her third song on Soundcloud and essentially a Lana Del Rey knock-off. But is that proof of being an Industry Plant, or is it just evidence of an artist who hasn’t found their voice yet?

It seems that when we talk about Industry Plants what we’re actually talking about is the lack of transparency among major labels. Scour the web, and for every person outing Olivia Rodrigo or Phoebe Bridgers as an Industry Plant you’ll find someone else who regards them as having worked hard for their success. As such, the term is pretty devoid of meaning, especially when you consider just how subjective the concept of authenticity really is.

Billie Eilish’s parents are embedded in Hollywood’s film and television industry and may well have had the connections to give their daughter the best possible in her career. For some, that’s evidence enough. For others, the fact that Eilish’s brother Finneas writes all of her songs suggests her creative agency is secured. Some more cynical music fans assert that UGM kept Finneas onboard, yes for his talent as a songwriter, but also because his presence gave off the impression that Eilish’s success was the product of a wholesome family business rather than the intervention of a major record deal. Equally, there’s every possibility that Billie Eilish’s generation-defining success really is a family affair. The problem here might be that the music industry has become such a complex machine that we are bound to view anything that emerges from it with some degree of suspicion, which begs the question: why are we blaming the artists?

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