Welcome to Left Speaker/Right Speaker, where the smartest music heads we know debate the biggest trends in guitar music. If you can even call it that. In our second edition, we’re navigating a tradition at least as old as Mac DeMarco: industry plants! Are they real? Are they fake? Is this the new word for “poser” or “sell out” or “my opinions haven’t changed since the late '90s and nothing I read here will change that but boy, do I have thoughts...”? Why are you foaming at the mouth with a half-formed Phoebe Bridgers takedown you heard from some sweaty guy at some bar? Let’s meet our judges.
Today, on the side of "this is conspiratorial sexist nonsense,” returning champ Ashley Reese! Her opponent is CREEM contributor Zachary Lipez, also known as team "the moon landing was faked.” Who's right? Who's wrong? Whose line is it anyway?
CREEM: Thanks for being here, y’all. Mom always said a good place to start is at the beginning. When did you first hear the term “industry plant” outside of its hip-hop origins?
ASHLEY REESE: I don’t remember exactly what band it was being used to describe, but I do remember that it was a group of women, some indie rock band. If you piece together the implications, it’s [a term used to mean] an artist with lack of authenticity that someone in the music industry—which is pretty nefarious in a lot of ways—plucked out of the ether and decided was going to be the next hot thing. It’s like the Josie and the Pussycats movie.
ZACHARY LIPEZ: I first heard it applied to indie, or faux indie. I don’t remember the first time it was used because similar language has been so common for as long as I can remember, like “fake punks”—
AR: —or sellouts.
ZL: Sellouts, yeah, of course. With indie, you’ve got a genre where the name comes from where it exists in the market and the sound comes later. Authenticity is weirdly baked in, even though the majority of the people are middle class to upper middle class. Do you guys actually hear the “industry plant” accusation a lot? Because if you Google “industry plant,” there's 30 articles about why it's a myth and why it's not fair. You don’t really see articles that are like, “So and so is an industry plant.”
Publications are too chicken shit for that.
ZL: I also don’t pay much attention to what fans say, but I’m always conscious of the Mitski effect where one person with 200 followers is like, “I don't like this,” and then there are 15,000 people being like, “The backlash against Mitski is misogynistic.”
AR: I totally remember hearing up and coming artists, usually in hip-hop, getting thrown the “industry plant” label. It’s a way to temper excitement and to be a hater. But over the last few years it has been used to describe people like Phoebe Bridgers, or something, and people whose parents are a blue link on Wikipedia. It’s like, “Oh, now I see why this person rose to stardom.” It’s really easy to launch those accusations, especially when you’re talking about people who come from means or connections. Maybe I’m totally bullshitting, but in the hip-hop arena, I understand why there’s concern about people not being authentic. It’s a little less legitimate in these other genres, where upper middle class people who have connections, like a parent who is a producer, or a family friend in the music industry, succeed. I can see how people sneer at that, like, “Well, how did they get so big? Where did this come from? Why didn't I see the slow hustle and grind?" But it is silly.
Over the last few years, “industry plant” has been used to describe people whose parents are a blue link on Wikipedia.
So what is an industry plant?
AR: If we’re going by the definition that industry plants are people/bands that music industry players groom to become stars, I don’t think that’s right. I understand why people think that’s lame, but some of my favorite pop artists definitely fall under that umbrella. Like the Spice Girls. The Spice Girls were formed by two different music managers being like, “Hey, want to do some auditions to construct this pop group?" The Spice Girls were invented and the Spice Girls fucking rule. I’m not going to be like, “I really would’ve appreciated the Spice Girls more if I saw videos of them in their humble beginnings, authentically being friends, and deciding to make a pop group.” Do I really give a shit how the Spice Girls came to be? Not really. Do I know that “Spice Up Your Life” is a banger to this day? Duh.
ZL: It’s one of those unintended consequences of poptimism (the belief that pop music is worthy of critique just like rock music), where you want to take things seriously, you want to take pop seriously in all of its different forms, but you have to use different standards than you would when you take rap or indie rock super seriously. If part of the joy of this other genre is the artificiality, the escape that it’s supposed to provide, then you’re missing the point.
AR: There are definitely different standards for different genres. We can talk about the gender element, too.
The term “Industry Plant” seems to imply conspiratorial thinking. There’s a level of deception. You’ve been fooled into thinking someone is genuine or authentic, that a band could emerge on the scene fully formed without struggle. Where does that impulse come from?
ZL: The Strokes were positioned as scrappy inheritors of the Velvet Underground and Television. They didn’t necessarily hide their backgrounds.
The Strokes are rich kids who met at prep school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, like Gossip Girl with more cocaine. Julian Casablancas' dad founded Elite Model Management, one of the top modeling agencies in the world. Rock 'n' roll!
ZL: But [their image] was based on how they were dressed: they were presented as “New York: real rock returns.” Then someone like Frankie Cosmos, who didn't do anything, didn't lie, but was marketed as DIY and was born into wealth and connections…
ZL: Sure, and there’s no shortage of rich kids. But I always think it’s interesting when I see someone really seriously arguing about someone being an “industry plant,” like when people were very seriously calling Wet Leg industry plants–
AR: Like really? Are you fucking joking, lads? Do we want to look at people’s tax returns before we decide that they’re worth listening to, without being haters first? I don’t know. There’s something gendered there.
ZL: With the Strokes, [before rock fans used the term “industry plants,”] there were these t-shirts that said “fashionista,” but in the Strokes logo. Anyway, I loved that first record. I was all on board. But I also had a lot of friends who were five or six years older than me, and had been New York rockers, and to them, they weren’t using the term industry plant, but they were definitely like, “This band is a major label creation. This is inauthentic. It’s rich kid music. It’s a sign of the fall of New York.”
AR: There’s a distinction, too, of people coming from wealth/fame/connections, and the idea of someone being an industry plant—like, an artist who became really popular very quickly, and you have a knee-jerk reaction of, like, what? YUNGBLUD is an example. My natural instinct is, like, “Where the fuck did this kid come from?” Some years ago there was this indie musician named Fazerdaze and her song “Lucky Girl” that came up every time I opened YouTube. It has millions and millions of views. I’m like, “Where did this come from? Who is this person?” But we’re in a time where everything is so memeified, it’s almost silly for us to assume that anything that blows up is a nefarious, indie industry plant plot. Like “Old Town Road.” That was just some weird shit that got lucky. And popped off.
ZL: Are people [who are quick to throw the “industry plant” accusation] growing up without knowledge of what record labels used to do? A label would sign someone before they were famous. Then the label would make them famous. The guys in Led Zeppelin were all fucking industry hacks, depending on how you feel about them, but Jimmy Page was a session dude who arranged and wrote guitar parts for tons and tons and tons of pop hits. Not blues hits. Not hard rock hits. Just pop hits. Now indie labels—this is no shade towards Matador, who I love, but they don't sign bands that aren’t already popular. Indie labels don't do that. Now, basically, if I see something that’s an “industry plant,” is it an industry plant because their label’s doing their job? They’re cultivating a new artist. Sick.
AR: What’s the least that the label can do, try to get eyeballs and ears on you? Are you a sellout if you get popular? The “industry plant” thing can go into so many different fucked up directions. What are our actual gripes? Are we just saying this because we’re haters? Are we reverting to our middle school selves?
ZL: As an unsuccessful musician, I’ve been on labels. I’ve flirted with being middle tier. Some of the anger does come from even questions of, like, what is the industry now? When Pitchfork reviews a band managed by a former editor there, or when they profile a band that I know some of their writers have hung out with… I just can’t fucking imagine what it’s like to someone in Ohio who doesn’t have the privledge of being able to pay NYC rent. It must feel so frustrating. Or you’re a young rapper, like, “Fuck, I’ve been DMing these writers for months. How do I get in?”
AR: That’s true, and I'm not trying to act, like, tough titties about it, but how much of this shit is new? This industry is always going to privilege the people who-know-someone-who-knows-someone, who live in certain cities. What’s new is that people talk about it more. Like, god forbid Clairo comes out with a song. A chorus of “industry plant!” follows. Are we just saying this about people who we just don't care for?
Or women we don’t want to see succeed.
AR: People called Cardi B an industry plant, even though she had two mix tapes before she dropped “Bodak Yellow.”
ZL: And even though we’re talking about the gender difference, I still think the classic example [of this phenomenon] is the Monkees. But that's half a century ago. Women definitely get hit with the accusation more. Claro and Frankie Cosmos are artists under their own right. But I will say that, and this is only speaking for myself, women are generally making more interesting music, which makes it more fun to joke around with or critique. I'm not even curious as to whether a band like fucking Whitney, some vanilla indie pop band, is an industy plant. I don't want to have to think about Whitney. We could switch out any one band, I don't give a shit. To me, they came out of nowhere. Those guy bands aren't even as interesting as Vampire Weekend. The last industry plant band of dudes I actively cared about was probably Kings of Leon. I didn't even believe they were family. I was wrong. I did not even believe those dudes were brothers. I was like, “This is absolutely a post-Strokes cash in.”
I’m not even curious as to whether a band like fucking Whitney, some vanilla indie pop band, is an industy plant. I don’t want to have to think about Whitney. I don’t give a shit.
AR: That makes me think of the genre “landfill indie,” the big British bands of the mid-to-late-2000s. If this lingo was more popular in rock circles then, there would be some juicy conversations about building a Brit boy band, throw in some guitar. Those dudes feel like some fabrication of: “Let me find three dudes in Camden who look like they can definitely do some indie rock.”
ZL: Many of those bands, you could’ve assumed they were [industry plants]. But then I see the Cribs are doing their 12th album, and they're lifers… Is Coldplay an industry plant because they clearly got signed to be a more accessible Radiohead? Is that an “industry plant”?
AR: I don’t think so, but does that mean we need to watch a band’s rise and fall, rise and grind from the jump, before we're like, “okay, they successfully went through all the hoops they need to, to successfully pass our authenticity check.”
ZL: So what about a band like Tramp Stamps, the TikTok pop-punk band? The music they were doing was very on the nose. Their backstory was that they’re three ladies who got drunk in a bar. They were journeymen. They were, to be unkind, hacks who worked in the industry and had different publishing contracts and stuff like that. It goes back to the whole Led Zeppelin thing. Yes, I'm comparing Tramp Stamps to Led Zeppelin. Can people just do their jobs and toil in the industry for a little bit, and then try to find something that works?
Yes, I’m comparing Tramp Stamps to Led Zeppelin
Nuanced conversations are impossible. In the grand scheme of things, none of this matters in the case of death. There are some shenanigans, but mainly, there are myths. But to take another extreme, I would even argue that, if you have the means and are paying for music and buying albums from the artists that you do like, that you don't think are industry plants, it shows a certain cheapness of your soul to jump online and be like, “Well, these other people might be making money and that fucking sucks. Let's get them.”
AR: I'm not going to be mad at some band for trying to get a bag. Get your fucking bag.
ZL: But not only do I want to see the artist's tax returns, I want to see all the commenter’s tax returns! And not to lower the stakes even further, but I’m glad the “industry plant” conversation exists because it’s one of the few places left to have vehement arguments, which is one of the joys of being a music fan. You can really go at each other's throats. I'm sure it doesn’t feel great to get the accusations, but if you're getting these accusations, you're probably already doing well enough that you can hire someone else to read the comments.