- Julia Kuo
- Outside hip-hop, "industry plant" rumors most often target women—and not by coincidence.
To be alive and awake in 2019 is to face a deluge of disasters, travesties, and impending mass extinctions. Last month scientific journal Nature Geoscience published a report explaining how climate change could lead to the disappearance of stratocumulus clouds in roughly a century, which would add a potentially civilization-ending eight degrees Celsius to the warming already under way—for comparison's sake, the Paris climate agreement hopes to limit warming to a merely calamitous 1.5 degrees. Meanwhile, the human disaster who somehow remains the U.S. president denies there's a problem—he'd rather build a monument to xenophobia that a majority of the country's citizens oppose, while detaining thousands of migrant children apart from their families. One look at the headlines on any given day can provide nightmare fuel for weeks. But according to hundreds if not thousands of fans, commentators, and musicians on YouTube, Reddit, and Twitter, the already overwhelming list of reasons to abandon hope in humanity isn't long enough: we should also be angry about industry plants.
What are industry plants? Without conceding that they exist, I can say that they took their present form in hip-hop about a decade ago, and that in the past couple years similar rumors and accusations have spread to other genres, including pop and indie rock. The definition of "industry plant" varies based on who's making the allegation (and about whom), but nearly every version, no matter how haphazardly sketched, shares a few of the same features. It works like this, more or less: a label (or anyone with deep pockets) plucks an act out of obscurity, invests time and resources to develop them, and then reaps the benefits when they finally release a song or album and it rockets to the top of the charts. If you're thinking this sounds a lot like how labels ordinarily operate, well, even the people who believe in industry plants agree with you. A couple years ago one Reddit user explained that labels create plants "ultimately to make them and the artist money."
To be fair, industry plants aren't supposed to be routine signees. The term is nearly always invoked to suggest successful musicians disguised as independents—you're supposed to accept that they've made their own careers through grassroots self-promotion and touring, when in fact a massive corporation has engineered the whole thing and propagated their work in secrecy. It's basically a conspiracy theory devised by skeptical fans to explain an artist's sudden success, and it's been used to discredit just about every rising musician who has attracted those fans' ire. Similar language arose in the 90s to describe secret sellouts in the punk scene—though in those cases, sometimes a corporation really was surreptitiously involved.
In the past few years, industry-plant chatter has moved from the Web's anonymous corners into mainstream discourse. DJ Akademiks, the Alex Jones of hip-hop, loves conspiracy theories, and unsurprisingly he also loves talking about industry plants—I've seen several clips of him doing so on the popular Complex debate show Everyday Struggle. (He didn't reply to an e-mail I sent him a couple weeks ago.) Musicians have bought into the theory too: in the 2016 single "Exposed," Atlanta rapper Russ takes shots at unnamed industry plants while explaining how his grind got him a deal with Columbia, which would corelease his platinum-selling 2017 album There's Really a Wolf. The term "industry plant" also made an appearance in a May 2018 New York Times profile of indie-pop wonder Clairo, who's been a magnet for "industry plant" insults since her 2017 single "Pretty Girl," which she recorded at home when she was 18 (it went viral and racked up 29 million YouTube views).
Streaming technology has fed rumors of industry plants by making it easier for unknown musicians to cross over with viral hits—Billboard played an inadvertent role as well, by deciding last year to weight streamed songs and albums more heavily in its chart data. This increases the odds of unforeseen anomalies appearing on those charts: the version of "Baby Shark" produced by South Korean education company Pinkfong, for instance, debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at number 32 in January.
Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber sees the same connection between the rise of streaming and the growing fixation on industry plants. "I think streaming brought this thing back to life and really made it a talking point," he says. "Because some artists could come from absolutely nothing one week, you've never even heard of them—ten days after you first heard their name, their songs are charting, and they're the talk of social media. Like a Blueface—guy comes out of nowhere. Next thing you know, that's all you see on your timeline."
Barber remembers first hearing the phrase "industry plant" in the late aughts, when music bloggers had established themselves as cultural gatekeepers. "It was just a way to kind of explain artists that would come out of nowhere that weren't agreed upon by the blog delegation, that all of a sudden would skyrocket, get a bunch of money behind them, and then get all kinds of press and be lauded over," Barber says. "A lot of times that was hard to explain, and so I think that is how the term 'industry plant' was born."
Hip-hop message boards provided fertile soil for this theory throughout the 2010s. I've found threads dating back as far as 2012 where people are arguing on the hip-hop boards at the Coli and IGN about who might be an industry plant. Almost any rapper who experienced a sudden surge of popularity without help from a label got slapped with the tag—and even when they announced they'd signed with one, it was seen as a vindication of the idea that a label had been secretly involved all along. True believers can take even the absence of evidence as evidence: In a 2012 thread, when fellow users pressed IGN commenter dizzY41111 to support a claim that Atlanta rapper Trinidad James was an industry plant, dizzY replied, "We don't know, dude. That's why he's a plant." Mid-thread, in December of that year, James signed to Def Jam, and dizzY considered that proof: "And there we fucking go. What a surprise."
The tipping point for the spread of the industry-plant concept happened in June 2015, when XXL published the cover of its annual "Freshman Class" issue. The magazine's hand-picked roster of rising rappers always provokes some backlash—at least one of the rappers reliably draws heat for supposedly lacking the commercial momentum or grassroots support to merit such an accolade. That year, Atlanta rapper Raury appeared on the cover wearing a white T-shirt reading "industry plant." A couple days later, Complex published a brief, incisive primer on the term, calling it something "that only hip-hop culture could've bothered to come up with."
Conversations about industry plants in hip-hop remind me of arguments about who was "selling out" in the 90s punk and indie-rock scenes. Before the alternative-rock boom and the resulting major-label feeding frenzy, musicians recording subversive music more or less had to release it on independent labels—thriving without help from an obviously corrupt and out-of-touch industry was a point of pride for many artists, and remains so today. But "selling out" lost its sting once sales of physical media started to tank and more and more bands had to take whatever money they could get, no matter who was offering—probably sometime between 1996, when Vans started sponsoring Warped Tour, and 2002, when the Shins licensed "New Slang" to McDonald's.
"Industry plant" accusations feel like the kind of criticism early-90s rock bands would attract once word got out that they were entertaining a major-label offer—suspicion about big-money music-biz players just needed longer to take hold in hip-hop. The difference, of course, is that in the early 90s audiences lamented their favorite acts throwing away their hard-earned credibility by taking the devil's paycheck—only rarely was the charge that those acts had been puppets from the start. Once the idea of the industry plant arose, though, it found an audience among Extremely Online indie-rock fans who'd long since stopped caring about selling out—and one of the main reasons it did was misogyny.
"It definitely started coming up with the rise of the female indie-rock star," says Avery Springer, who fronts local emo band Retirement Party. Outside hip-hop, women are much more likely to be called industry plants—I've seen the term used against Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, Lorde, Dua Lipa, and Halsey. Last year Springer posted on her band's Twitter account, "Maybe if we start the rumor that we're an industry plant, the big suits will believe it and give us a lot of money." In her circles, at least, the accusation is so implausible that it works as a punch line. "I feel like it's pretty obvious that we're not an industry plant—I don't think that my voice and appearance is good enough for us to be," she says. "I think that a lot of people understand that the term doesn't really hold much weight."
Springer's self-deprecating argument—that Retirement Party can't be an industry plant, because the industry would do better—doesn't work for artists who become stars. In a 2018 interview for the Pitchfork podcast In Sight Out, Chance the Rapper explained that he'd developed a pretty thick skin, but that "industry plant" accusations still got to him. No other independent artist who's built a career from the ground up has had his level of success, and that's invited a lot of skepticism about his bona fides.
"There've been success stories for indie artists, but very rarely would somebody be indie and end up winning three Grammys and being one of the biggest artists in the world," Barber says. "That shocked people. What do you do if you can't explain something, and you're not a part of it? Make up a conspiracy theory."
The notion of industry plants has become so thoroughly ingrained in hip-hop culture that the term itself has started to break down. To determine what somebody means by it, you have to ask. For local rapper Ric Wilson, it's simply a more confrontational way to refer to a label signee—his definition harks back to labels' long history of grooming promising artists. "I feel like an industry plant is Stevie Wonder—somebody found off of the street who's really talented and they literally give them the resources and create their whole brand, or help create their brand, and put resources behind that to help expand that brand to more ears and more people," Wilson says. He seems to be trying to neutralize the term as an insult by equating it with business as usual. "I feel like industry plants are cool," he says. "I feel like industry plants are most of our favorite artists, so people just need to relax."
A Canadian YouTuber named John, who operates a channel as Progress, considers an "industry plant" to be a young musician snapped up by a label before having a chance to develop a sense of agency or artistic identity. He sees the practice as fundamentally predatory. "You see how damaging it is to them, as younger people—look at Demi Lovato, look at Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, all of these people who came up as young stars," John says. "It shows you the industry's not meant for people who are not ready."
John developed an interest in industry plants this past fall: Trippie Redd's November mixtape, A Love Letter to You 3, features a rapper John had never heard of named Baby Goth, who's signed to UMG imprint Republic. At the time, she hadn't released any material on her own, so John looked into her back story. In January, he uploaded a YouTube video where he unpacks her brief career as Bria Bueno, an aspiring pop singer who'd tried to make it independently with a failed Indiegogo appeal. He claims that Republic basically gave her a completely new image and sound. The clip went viral, giving John's channel its first hit with more than 600,000 views. It also forced Baby Goth's hand: her team rushed her into her first interview, with popular but problematic podcast No Jumper, which appeared online less than two weeks after John's video.
I've spent time watching more than half a dozen YouTubers fixated on industry plants, and John is the most level-headed among them. Rather than chase views and subscribers by saying the most outlandish and inflammatory things he can in as many places as possible, he does his research—to him, industry plants are less part of a diabolical scheme and more just regular people who've signed themselves over to a system they can't control. "In no way doing any of these videos am I wanting to destroy a person's career—it's more to show people as a warning to say, 'This could happen if you decide to do something like this,'" he says. "It's almost like an obligation to me—I'm making the content so people know it happens."
John thinks more transparency would help, especially given that young artists broadcast so much of their lives (or what we're supposed to accept as their lives) on social media. "I want to start making sure that people understand that it's the label and the industry people who are controlling these people and making them do a lot of these things, and that's the thing that I don't really like that much," he says. "That's why I want to keep making the videos—so that people can see what a label can do."
Conspiracy theories are an expression of belief in an ordered universe—of the idea that somebody or something is in control, and that things don't simply happen for unpredictable or inexplicable reasons. The conspiracy theory of the industry plant hinges exactly on what a label can do, to borrow John's words. It requires a music industry that's developed an infallible formula for secretly sculpting obscure young artists into breakout stars—because if that formula weren't infallible, wouldn't it imply the existence of hundreds if not thousands of artists under secret label control who never go anywhere? Who can believe in a business that could stay solvent under those conditions?
"If this was just like a thing where people banded together and said, 'All right, let's plant this person in the industry,' don't you think it would happen more often, and they would do it to more people on their roster?" Barber asks. "Having seen behind the curtain and understanding how things work—obviously there are certain artists who get pushed, and others don't. But there's no exact formula to create a star." v