By: Kara MacKenzie
October 17th, 2023
This article is part of our Summer 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Some music fans would say that anyone with powerful connections, a foggy background or a suspiciously familiar sound must be an industry plant. Others would argue that only those who have purposefully deceived their fans qualify for the label. No matter what their definition, most people agree that industry plants steal the spotlight from smaller, more deserving artists, and that they are bad for the industry as a whole.
The term “industry plant,” which originated from rap and hip-hop message board culture in the early 2010s, is generally used to describe “an artist who has a major/indie label backing their movement but presents themselves as a ‘homegrown start-up’ to create the illusion of an organic following,” according to Bubblegum Club Magazine.
Amin Koumaiha, a self-proclaimed hip-hop geek, defined an industry plant as “an artist whose rise in the music industry was largely manufactured or funded, likely by the record label or another 3rd party.” However, he added that “there is a distinction between a co-sign or artist development as opposed to someone coming out of nowhere who was funded to be there.” This distinction is important to music fans, but it is often hard to tell which artists fall into which category.
Examples of artists who have been accused of being industry plants range from Lizzo, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo to Drake, 50 Cent and Travis Scott. It seems that any artist who frequently gets their music on the radio and their face in the media is likely to be called an industry plant, and the rise of social media has made it easier than ever for these accusations to spread, whether or not there is evidence to back them up.
On some level, society’s recent obsession with outing so-called industry plants is understandable. “I think society dislikes industry plants because fans recognize how difficult it is to have success in the music business, so seeing someone with an unfair advantage having success will raise some eyebrows,” said Koumaiha.
He is right; independently producing music is easier than ever, so new artists suddenly winning awards and sponsorships with seemingly no previous industry experience is suspicious. There is something strange about a debut music video with noticeably high production value or a debut album with high-profile artists featured — something that makes audiences feel uncomfortable.
People, especially music fans, tend to highly value authenticity and relatability. Seeing an artist start at the bottom and work their way up feels like a success story that fans can relate to and confidently support. Music fans like to believe that their favorite artists have worked hard to get where they are and deserve the success that they have.
Artists who lack a clearly organic backstory risk seeming distant, cliche and worst of all, unrelatable. So when a brand new artist appears to have unfair advantages behind the scenes, fans can’t help but wonder where they got those advantages. People are hesitant to support artists who they believe did not earn their place in the industry, and so they label artists who are unrelatable as industry plants.
Unfortunately, women are much more likely to be given the label. One example of this is Clairo, a 22-year-old lofi pop artist who gained fame in 2018 after the release of her self-produced track “Pretty Girl.” Despite writing, singing and producing her own music since her early teens, she was attacked with accusations of being an industry plant with unfair connections because of her father, a marketing executive for companies such as Coca-Cola and Converse.
These accusations were frustrating for Clairo, who told the New York Times that she saw them as blatant evidence of sexism. “The fact that there has to be a man behind my success when I genuinely have worked so hard is frustrating. At the end of the day, when people say, ‘Oh, she’s an industry plant,’ I’m like, ‘No, I just have representation, like every single other artist you listen to.’ I’m not the first person to get a manager.”
Another example of the misogynistic refusal to accept women’s success in a male-dominated industry appears on the popular forum website Lipstick Alley. In a thread that asks for “Examples Of An Industry Plant And Why Are They A Plant,” responses accuse 20 female artists of being industry plants, but only 12 men. When prompted to provide evidence or justification for their accusations, one poster responded by saying “No explanation really … we just KNOW.”
It seems likely that sexism and misogyny play a role in determining who is targeted for being an industry plant. It is also impossible to know an individual artist’s complete background, and most people do not understand the complexities and nuances involved in the music industry. Unless a person admits to being an industry plant, nobody can know for sure.
Besides, any artist who wants to become part of the music industry is forced to rely on record labels to gain popularity. As journalist Josh Terry pointed out in an article for Vice, “most everyone else with a sizable audience either has the backing of a label, a publicist, a manager, a booking agent, a team of people helping them release and write music — or all of the above.” The job of a music label is to develop an artist, providing connections and resources to help them reach fame. Taking advantage of that should not invalidate the hard work that an artist put in behind the scenes.
But if it is impossible to tell who is an industry plant, there is no real definition, and misogyny and sexism often influence accusations, then why do people still love to hate industry plants?
Ultimately, seeing someone represent themselves as homegrown and self-made, when in reality they had privileges that some artists do not, can feel insulting to truly independent artists with no industry connections or financial backing. People don’t like to believe that their favorite artists are privileged or are part of a biased, unfair industry, so they attack anyone who they think is an industry plant.
However, artists who sign to labels and take advantage of the power and influence that they provide are simply trying to follow their dreams. Instead of attacking individual artists for taking the opportunity that was provided to them, music fans should question why the industry doesn’t provide that same opportunity to everyone who is deserving of it.
The fact is, it takes talent, luck and privilege to make it in such a large and historic industry. It takes time and money, both of which are resources that many independent artists do not have, to support a music career. As Koumaiha pointed out, “Not everyone with musical talent will even get a chance.”
As Bianca Bucholtz writes for The Current, many have targeted Taylor Swift, whose parents moved their family from Pennsylvania to Nashville to help her enter the country music industry. The opportunity to move to the capital of country music and devote the time and money it takes to make it in the industry is definitely a privilege, one that was likely a main reason that she was able to become so successful. However, it seems unfair to blame Swift for pursuing her dream career, when the real problem is that it is much more challenging for those without the privileges she had to do the same thing.
The music industry also has a long list of structural problems and predatory practices that warrant suspicion and further investigation. For one, it has a legacy of racism, sexism and homophobia that still exists today, creating biases that make it harder for members of minority groups to gain fame.
Labels and executives are also known to practice suspicious signing practices and predatory royalty deals, which can take advantage of artists with less experience. Finally, the rise of social media has meant that labels value PR, media buzz and publicity over talent and growth, which can put some artists at a disadvantage. These problems are all real and worth pointing out, but individual artists have little control over them.
Koumaiha said he has “much less respect for artists [he] considers to be industry plants,” and of course every consumer can decide for themselves which artists they choose to support. However, instead of targeting individual industry plants, which is inaccurate and often influenced by misogyny, fans should consider examining the industry that privileges the people with money and connections in the first place. Audiences hate industry plants because they reveal the inequality and hierarchy within the music industry, but industry plants aren’t the problem: the industry is.
Kara MacKenzie is currently a senior studying Professional & Public Writing and Women’s & Gender Studies. She is interested in the intersections between rhetoric and social justice, and hopes to one day use her communications skills to benefit a nonprofit organization. In her personal life, she is an intramural volleyball player, plant mom, artist, and avid reader.