On the internet, anyone who’s anyone is an industry plant. It seems like every time a new artist breaks into the mainstream, people are quick to question whether their sudden rise-to-fame is actually organic. On popular music forums like KayneToThe, industry plant conspiracies run rampant about any artist — Clairo, Young Thug, Khalid, Chance the Rapper, Tyler the Creator, Billie Eilish, Travis Scott, Phoebe Bridgers, 6lack, Post Malone, King Princess, BROCKHAMPTON, even Kayne himself.

While the exact definition of an industry plant is up for debate, most people agree that it boils down to two key issues: privilege and authenticity. 

An industry plant is someone who purposely deceives fans about their “self-made” hustle when in reality they’re being secretly groomed by record labels to craft an image and sound that may not even be their own. The label “industry plant,” especially in the hip-hop and indie-rock community, is an insult usually meant to undermine an artist’s credibility or invalidate an artist’s work. But in an industry that has always been just as much about talent as it is about connections, who isn’t an industry plant? Why do people care about being self-made in the first place? And if the music is good, why does it matter?

In the popular music subreddit “Popheads,” Reddit user “cihfnrfi” explains the logic behind this expectation perfectly, using Bazzi as an example: “Fans loved feeling like they were supporting an indie artist, loved feeling like the artist’s successes were their successes, and that by making a major label signing public they’d ruin that relationship,” said cihfnrfi. “Even though behind the scenes [the record label would] be giving the artist a marketing and promotions budget, they’d keep the relationship in the background, if not hidden. It made sense. Everyone loves feeling like they discovered an awesome new artist, no one likes feeling like they’re the target of a corporate advertising campaign, especially when it comes to music.”

 

Why does everyone love to hate industry plants? - Bazzi

 

This is especially true in the U.S., where we are wired to love the “rags to riches” story since birth – where we cling onto the American Dream of the “nobody” who made it into the “somebody,” the self-made millionaire, who against extraordinary odds, rose up from the depths of poverty. That’s why so many of us eat it up when politicians make speeches about their difficult family lives, when businessmen talk about their humble beginnings and when musicians rap or sing about their hustle.

It’s the reason lyrics like “started from the bottom, now we’re here” resonate with people, even though Degrassi stardom and white-suburban-Canada isn’t exactly the “bottom.” But people like to think so. Because believing that their favorite artist started from the “bottom” means they helped them get to the top. People want to be a part of the grind. They want to be a part of the come-up. 

But in the age of the internet, where anyone can go from nobody to somebody overnight, that “come-up” becomes increasingly difficult to trace. Instead of fame being attributed to decade-long hustles, an artist’s fame attributed to the magical algorithm, which according to industry plant theorists, makes it easier for musicians to “fake” their self-made, organic rise to success and dismiss requests for long-winded origin story because “oh, they just happenedto go viral overnight.

 

Why does everyone love to hate industry plants?  - Clairo

 

After the surprise-success of her viral song “Pretty Girl,” bedroom popstar Clairo was criticized when it was discovered that Clairo’s father, Geoff Contrill, actually had major ties to the music industry, prompting rumors about whether or not his connections gave her a leg-up. While no one knows how much help she had before posting the song to YouTube, according to the New York Times article, Clairo’s’ Pretty Girl Went Viral. Then She Had To Prove Herself,” after becoming viral, “Ms. Cottrill’s father consulted an old friend, Jon Cohen, an executive at Cornerstone, the marketing agency behind The Fader magazine. Mr. Cohen later signed her to a 12-song deal with his company’s Fader Label and introduced Ms. Cottrill to Pat Corcoran, Chance the Rapper’s manager, whose company Haight Brand took her on as a client near the end of 2017.” And the rest was history. 

On a similar vein, Lil Nas X’s rise-to-fame was scrutinized for being an “industry plant” after the sudden virality of “Old Town Road,” while others claimed he was just a viral marketing genius, contributing this to his experience running the popular, now-banned Twitter meme page / Nicki Minaj stan account “Nas Maraj.” Because of this background, many people claimed he must have known how to manipulate the charts. Others called bullshit: there just had to be someone else pulling the strings. Lil Nas’s response?:

 

 

But it’s just not just sudden smash-hits that get criticized for being an “industry plant.” This insult is also thrown at artist’s who are especially private about their family life, or whose background stories just don’t add up — or really, anyone who listeners view as hypocritical in their lyricism. 

 

 

In recent news, the indie rock artist Mitski was criticized for her father’s alleged ties to the CIA, which while unproven, sparked a controversy about artists who come from wealth but deliver anti-capitalist methods. In a similar vein, fans were outraged when they discovered that Lana Del Rey’s father, Rob Grant, was not just a millionaire real estate broker and President and CEO of Web Media Properties, but that before she was famous, she had had an entire music career under a different name — Lizzy Grant. After failing to become famous as herself, she rebranded to the sultry indie-pop queen that so many people know and love her for, prompting angry fans to ask: Is Lana Del Rey really just another manufactured popstar? 

 

Why does everyone love to hate industry plants?  - Lana Del Rey

 

The truth is that we could sit around all day and debate who is and isn’t an industry plant. But at the end of the day, does it really matter? In other words, do these industry plant allegations actually stop people from listening to their music? No. Because their music is still objectively good. Clairo still has over 7 million streams on Spotify; Lana Del Rey has over 16 million streams, won two Grammys; and so on. But does it change people’s perspective of their brand, image and artistic integrity? Absolutely. And in some ways, that’s more damaging. 

“I have pretty thick skin, but niggas be calling me an ‘industry plant,’ and it really ticks me off,” said Chance The Rapper in an interview with Pitchfork’s podcast In Sight Out. “But I don’t be sounding off. I don’t get on Twitter talking all crazy. But some niggas tried to say that one reason they didn’t trust my authenticity, or one reason they didn’t believe I could do it without the machine, was because I was on Saturday Night Live. For me, it was a personal goal. A lot of people who are on SNL are there because they are promoting something. They’re not pitching sketches.” 

 

 

For many female artists, the industry plant label is oftentimes entrenched in sexism. 

“The fact that there has to be a man behind my success when I genuinely have worked so hard is frustrating,” Clairo said in her New York Times profile.  “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.”

“People can’t handle it,” Phoebe Bridgers said in reference to being called an industry plant in an interview with NME about her new album Punisher.  “The Strokes are an industry plant – literally! Everybody knows that, at least in music, but it’s never made anyone like them less. It’s such an insane fucking double standard.” said Bridgers. “If you have wealthy parents, you’re not allowed to make music as a woman, but you’re rewarded for it as a man. Every white boy who is mediocre is an industry plant by that standard.”

 

Phoebe Bridgers

 

While Bridger’s sentiment resonates, there is also undeniable amount of privilege in her response — something that gets at the root of many people’s problems with industry plants — that these connections, even one as simple as having wealthy parents, prop people up, giving artists extreme advantages over less-wealthy, less-connected acts. 

As with any career, it’s extremely frustrating to see one artist outshine another artist who is just as talented, simply because of industry-backing. It’s even more frustrating when the well-connected artist is considered the pioneer of a new music sound, when oftentimes it’s the lesser-known acts that created the sound in the first place, innovating in the most new, interesting ways. 

This growing frustration — conspiratorial or not — with “industry plants” signifies a shift away from the passive listening many people have attributed to the streaming age. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the music, music listeners are now demanding more transparency not just from artists and record labels about their music-making process, but also from streaming platforms that are often cryptic in the ways their algorithms and playlist curation processes work.

People want to connect with self-made artists that aren’t backed by major record labels — and while streaming platforms have made this more possible, they’ve only touched the surface. There’s more they can do whether that’s through better discoverability tools that prioritize independent artists to artists being more vocal about their industry-connections or through more transparency on how record labels “manufacturer” artists. 

That being said, at the end of the day, it’s up for listeners to decide the music we want to consume, so what do you think?

If an artist has industry-backing before they get famous, does that invalidate their music career? Or does a musician’s music stand alone?

In other words, how much does a musician’s origin story matter to YOU?