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How “industry plants” became the internet’s hottest conspiracy

It seems like every musician, including mega-stars like Taylor Swift, is being labeled an “industry plant?” Does it actually mean anything?



How “industry plants” became the internet’s hottest conspiracy
How “industry plants” became the internet’s hottest conspiracy

On TikTok, a dispute is brewing over the bona fides of hip-hop’s latest viral sensation. Twenty-two-year-old singer 4Batz, whose real name is Neko Bennett, rose to prominence as an independent artist in 2023 with only two (now three) streamable songs to his name. One of them, “Act II: Date @ 8,” earned a feature from rap superstar Drake, who signed 4Batz to his record label OVO Sound earlier this month. So far, he’s earned cosigns from Kanye West and SZA; on Spotify, he’s accumulated an impressive 10 million monthly listeners.

4Batz’s blink-and-you-missed-it ascent immediately raised doubts about the legitimacy of his come-up. Did the baby-voiced crooner ever have a certifiable career as an independent artist, or was he plucked out of thin air by some crafty music executives with a preconceived plan to launch their next big star? In other words, is 4Batz an “industry plant?”

A slew of commentators on TikTok seem to think so based on Drake’s quick cosign. One TikToker, @MediaMayhem, argues that 4Batz has simply benefitted from “good marketing,” namely his presence on the popular YouTube rap series From the Block. Others point to the quality of his Spotify-core, trap sound as proof that his popularity must be largely manufactured. (On the flipside, one TikToker argued that he isn’t a “traditional” industry plant because his songs are actually good.) Writer Mankaprr Conteh also questioned whether the speediness of 4Batz’s rise even matters if his music is clearly resonating with listeners.

4Batz is far from the first artist to have his pathway to fame questioned. Multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste’s recent entry into the awards space has raised eyebrows. Billie Eilish, another awards magnet, has dealt with the same suspicions that her stardom is inorganic. In recent years, the pejorative “industry plant” has been employed with fervor among music fans much like the term “nepo baby” has been in acting. (In the case of certain well-connected, blossoming stars like Maya Hawke, the singer-actor daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, these conversations have overlapped.) Unlike nepo baby discourse, though, there seems to be less of a unified understanding of what an industry plant actually is. As a result, it’s a term being thrown at every artist you can think of, even longtime industry mainstays like Taylor Swift and Kanye West.

A brief history of the “industry plant”

Music journalists began noticing the term “industry plant” on hip-hop message boards in the early 2010s. In one thread on the forum KanyeToThe from 2012, users accused a variety of rappers — including 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, Trinidad James, Drake, and Meek Mill — of being industry plants based on their supposed connections and how they were discovered.

Pitchfork writer Alphonse Pierre, who reviews rap music, says that this phenomenon occurs when artists seem to blow up suddenly. This conversation often crops up in the hip-hop scene, where someone’s authenticity and pre-fame hustle are an important part of a rapper’s identity.


Reply to @glitterspaceship here is an analysis and my thoughts on if she’s a plant. Lmk who I should do next :)

♬ Violin - Grooving Gecko

“This happens a lot in rap these days where new artists show up overnight all the time and already famous artists are racing to be attached to the hype train,” he says. Interestingly, these are the circumstances surrounding the early and latter parts of Drake’s career. When he arrived on the rap scene in the mid-2000s, following his time as an actor on the Canadian teen drama Degrassi, he was labeled an industry plant by hip-hop fans. Now, in his late 30s, he’s attaching himself to newer artists — like 4Batz — helping them earn the pejorative title he once had.

More recently though, as social media and streaming have taken over, this label has been increasingly tacked onto artists occupying nearly every popular genre of music. From indie-rock acts like Phoebe Bridgers and Wet Leg to mainstream pop singers like Tate McRae — even unimpeachable A-listers like Taylor Swift — everyone is seemingly a record label puppet that we’ve all been brainwashed into liking.

Aside from the supposed speed of an artist’s rise, there are a couple of factors that seem to increase one’s likelihood of being called an “industry plant.” Nepotism is indeed one of them. Following the virality of her 2017 song “Pretty Girl,” singer-songwriter Clairo was quickly labeled an industry plant when a New York Times profile revealed that her father, Geoff Cottrill, was the former chief marketing officer at Converse and helped get her a recording contract through his business connections. Gracie Abrams, daughter of Hollywood filmmaker J.J. Abrams, was also hit with these accusations when she was announced as one of the opening acts for Swift’s Eras Tour and, later, nominated for Best New Artist at this year’s Grammys.

Another common signifier of “industry plant” is a perceived lack of talent. Before Lana Del Rey was lauded as a songwriting genius — this critical reappraisal happened around 2019’s Norman Fucking Rockwell — her music wasn’t necessarily received enthusiastically by critics. Her heavily mocked musical guest appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2012 highlighted what detractors felt was a lack of vocal ability and stage presence. Factor in her 1950s glamourpuss looks — a change from her previous era performing under the name Lizzy Grant — and her Cuban-inspired stage name, and naysayers deemed her the Tumblr-friendly product of some focus group test.

Still, these industry plant accusations ignore the reality of the function of the music industry. Record label executives are supposed to seek out unknown talent — be they well-connected or not — and develop them into profitable artists. It’s the crux of their work. As Tom Taylor wrote in an article for Far Out Magazine, it’s these companies’ MO to help artists “on their journey through advice, funding, marketing, and getting them on the biggest stages that they can.” These are the backstories of legendary Motown artists like the Supremes and Marvin Gaye, who were sent to charm school to adopt a more refined, elegant presence, and Disney-bred child stars like Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and the Jonas Brothers, who were seen as products to be built into pop singers and were given in-house advertising through Radio Disney and the Disney Channel. Music fans have had a front-row seat to this sort of artistic development for several decades on music competition shows, like American Idol and The X-Factor, which produced the careers of hitmakers like Kelly Clarkson and One Direction (and inadvertently then, Harry Styles) respectively. That same talent search and training is also employed by Korean entertainment agencies launching big K-pop groups, like BTS, Twice, and Blackpink.

Today’s artists are getting attention in a new, sped-up way

Despite these “industry plant” discussions often taking place online, there’s a lack of literacy regarding social media’s impact on the music business.

In the mid-2000s, Justin Bieber was one of the first viral internet stars to gain the attention of A-list singers and a talent manager for his YouTube covers. When he released his first studio album My World 2.0 in 2010, he became the youngest male singer to debut at No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100 in almost 50 years, demonstrating a DIY route for mega-pop stardom. Fellow Canadian Shawn Mendes is another example of an artist whose popularity on the now-defunct app Vine launched him into a new stratosphere of fame. This shift in the way artists are discovered is even more visible in hip-hop, following the invasion of SoundCloud rappers in the 2010s. The free streaming platform allowed young rhymers like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Pump, Post Malone, and the late Juice WRLD to bypass old methods of crafting mixtapes and selling CDs out of cars.

BTS members Jungkook, V, Suga, Jin, RM, Jimin, and J-Hope on the red carpet, wearing blazers and trench coats.
Korean pop group BTS at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards at Staples Center on January 26, 2020, in Los Angeles, California.

Streaming platforms, like Spotify and Apple Music, have also changed the way artists are promoted by record labels and discovered by consumers. This has become a genuine gripe among people who make music and feel the industry is screwing them over. One major point of contention in this regard is Spotify’s “Discovery Mode” tool, which allows artists to increase their likelihood of exposure on the app while accepting lower royalties. In 2021, musicians and songwriters from the Artists Rights Alliance penned a Rolling Stone op-ed, calling the “Discovery Mode” initiative a “pay-for-play scheme,” facilitating a “race to the bottom” for aspiring musicians.

These concerns are reminiscent of the complaints that led to the regulation of radio payola by the Federal Communications Commission in 1934.

“Conventional, or radio payola, refers to paying off a DJ to play a song during their set,” Kristelia García, a Georgetown University Law Center professor, tells Vox. This trend persisted long after Congress got involved — the Communications Act didn’t ban payola but required that radio stations disclose their payments. For instance, another payola scandal arose in the 1980s when record labels found a loophole to this legislation and began utilizing independent promoters to “lavish extravagant gifts upon their DJ ‘friends’ with impunity.”

“The idea was to get exposure for the song in hopes that the audience would hear it, like it, and then go out and buy the album, tickets to the show, a T-shirt, etc.,” Garcia explains.

In the streaming age, this exposure technique has evolved where artists can “pay off a playlister to slot a song in a playlist,” she explains, or pay for an advertisement through Spotify’s Ad studio.

“A-listers have marketing departments, and developing and indie musicians have streaming payola, among other options,” says García. Regardless, concerns about this marketing process and the inequalities that may arise don’t totally explain why everyone is concerned about “industry plants.”

Everyone is skeptical of everything right now

The continued prevalence of the industry-plant conversation is a symptom of a larger trend online right now: compulsive skepticism. Post-pandemic, it’s hard not to notice users becoming more openly conspiracy-minded, questioning the legitimacy of everything from natural disasters to public health guidelines to celebrity couplings.

This problem is also represented in the overwhelming number of online sleuths attempting to uncover the “truth” behind major news stories, whether it be the brief disappearance of a British royal from public life or a young woman’s murder. In extreme cases, this rush to speculate can have troubling outcomes. In a 2023 New Statesman article, Sarah Manavis described the alarming rise of armchair detectives spreading false information about active missing persons cases.

Adam M. Enders, an associate professor at the University of Louisville’s political science department, says the public’s embrace of conspiracy theories isn’t new, but it’s become a “more salient talking point” in the media recently.

“There is more discussion of conspiracy theories, but not necessarily more conspiracy theorizing,” he says. “They might be able to travel farther and faster than during the pre-internet days. However, there is no evidence that more people believe in conspiracy theories today than they did decades ago.”

Enders coauthored the 2023 study “The Relationship Between Social Media Use and Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation,” which found that a person’s interest in conspiracy theories is based on a number of social factors and doesn’t exactly coincide with exposure alone.

“Users selectively expose themselves to like-minded content online,” he says. “If one is interested in conspiratorial explanations for salient events, they’re likely to spend time online looking for material that supports that way of thinking.”

This behavior has, not surprisingly, bled into celebrity culture. Not only is this demonstrated in the undying industry-plant debate, but in the current response to Hollywood gossip. Vox’s Rebecca Jennings wrote about the number of TikTokers dissecting and debunking reports surrounding the divorce of singer Joe Jonas and actor Sophia Turner last year. Through social media and reality TV, the celebrity PR machine has become noticeably more transparent, leading the average tabloid consumer to become more savvy. Still, as Jennings writes, this skepticism pervading the internet “extends far beyond critical thinking.”

Elena Broda, a doctoral student at the University of Gothenburg and a researcher for the Knowledge Resistance Project, notes that public figures play a key role in “ordinarily marginalized conspiracist worldviews” entering “mainstream” discourse.

“Conspiracy theories emerge as attempts to explain important sociopolitical events by alleging some sort of secret operation by powerful elites,” she says. “It is a means to understand and regain control over one’s environment. As such, celebrities may be perceived as part of ‘the elite,’ which makes them likely subjects for conspiracy theories.”

Enders, more or less, agrees, citing the conspiracies around the NFL’s supposed involvement with Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s relationship and Kate Middleton’s health. “Whenever a salient event occurs, especially one involving visible political or cultural figures, conspiracy theories are likely to follow,” he says.

By all accounts, it seems like speculating about people and things in pop culture has become the internet’s most popular sport — but to what end? In most cases, though, users simply don’t agree with an artist’s popularity in relation to what they believe to be lacking talent or skill. When it comes to so-called industry plants, particularly singers who benefit from nepotism, it seems like many users are hinting at a larger conversation about privilege, and how it can propel a career into motion.

Still, these industry plant arguments rarely produce any real conclusions or judgments about the music industry, but more often than not, the debate about industry plants serves as a reminder that the music industry is just that — an industry. In an attempt to contend with the feeling of being sold to, listeners retaliate in the ways they can. As Alphonso Pierre puts it, it might just be a new method of hating.

“It’s a pretty good and lasting way to shit on an artist you don’t like without having to actually explain anything,” he says. “That’s what the internet is all about.”