Stop Calling Artists ‘Industry Plants'

The controversy around Tramp Stamps shows why the nebulous term ignores the industry’s faults and blames musicians.
JT
Chicago, US
April 23, 2021, 11:00am
Tramp Stamps
Image via Tramp Stamps' Facebook.

If there’s one lesson to take away from last week’s backlash against the Nashville all-women pop-punk trio Tramp Stamps — whose viral TikToks and recent single “I’d Rather Die” triggered social media invective against their derivative bubblegum mall-punk aesthetic — it’s that we need to stop referring to musicians as “industry plants.”

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“Let’s talk about Tramp Stamps, and proof that they’re an industry plant,” said TikTok user Seapunkhistorian, suggesting that because the Nashville band’s members had solo pop careers previously and have changed their appearance over time, “industry figureheads” put this group together in a desperate attempt to appeal to the youth. ”Everything about this group is so calculated, almost insidiously. Even down to their hair colors.” The post was favorited by over 62,000 TikTok users.

In addition to their generally cringeworthy internet presence, the group was criticized on social media for their members’ loose affiliations with Dr. Luke’s Prescription Songs publishing company and their problematic lyrics about alcohol and consent. As it turns out, however, proof that they were the product of some conspiratorial boardroom conversation ended up being hard to come by. On April 17, Tramp Stamps clarified in a four-page statement that they self-release music through their Make Tampons Free imprint, along with handling the recording, mixing, and songwriting themselves. Of course, those claims don’t negate any criticisms of cravenly pandering to punk audiences — and details about the group's backstory are hard to find. But the incident certainly illustrated the limits of using “industry plant” as a catchall term for any artist we negatively respond to, or who we think holds an unfair advantage in the music industry. 

For one thing, there's no consensus at all on what an "industry plant" actually is. In some ways, the term might be seen as a spiritual successor to “selling out,” a charge dating back to the 1950s lobbed at artists who allegedly sacrificed artistic integrity for a paycheck. Rolling Stone recently described it as “an artist who has label backing but presents themself as self-made,” while in 2018, The New York Times called it “the catchall slur among music fans for someone undeserving of their buzz and opportunities.” However, a Pigeons and Planes piece from 2020 asked 12 artists and experts about the term, and they received a dozen different interpretations. 

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An insightful Chicago Reader feature from 2019 pointed out that many definitions of the phrase arguably just explain how labels typically operate: “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.” Still, if there’s no adequate definition for an industry plant, then the term can be used for anything. 

Obviously, it's not just punk posturing that triggers these debates. The Chicago Reader traces the common use of “industry plant'' to 2000s hip-hop message boards, where posters would use it in an attempt to explain why a new artist had suddenly become so popular; since then, dozens of rappers—from Russ, Post Malone, and Chance the Rapper to Young Dolph and Cardi B—have fielded such charges from journalists, fans, and even other rappers. In the indie and pop worlds, Clairo has faced industry plant accusations hinging around her father, a marketing executive who has worked for Coca-Cola and Converse, while Billie Eilish’s stratospheric arc prompted skeptics to suggest some concerted and artificial industry effort to propel her to mainstream prominence. “People talking about how every god damn woman who gets recognition is an industry plant while all of their male counterparts have shit handed to them on a silver platter," Philadelphia artist Kississippi recently remarked on Twitter

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Despite the subtle (and not-so-subtle) misogyny and racism in many of the conversations around “industry plants,” the impulse to peg an artist’s success to nefarious and artificial industry forces is understandable. Chronically online and obsessive music fans tend to value authenticity more than the casual listener who gets their music mainly from the radio or a streaming algorithm. When this subset of listeners is given the choice between an explicitly underground artist and one that might have some level of outside financial backing or industry support, the first option will likely be the consensus pick. 

But the reality is that, apart from artists who make a conscious choice to steer clear of the trappings of the traditional music industry, 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. “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.’” Clairo said in a 2018 New York Times interview. “I’m not the first person to get a manager.” 

Ultimately, though, probably the biggest problem with the “industry plant” discourse is that it zeroes in on the people who make music, rather than the alleged industry forces behind them. More often than not, these accusations are disproportionately directed at non-white, non-male-identifying artists, whom the music industry has a long history taking advantage of through horrific royalty deals, predatory signing practices, and the overall effects of industry-wide racism. These problems are structural and bigger than any one act.

Instead of calling an artist an "industry plant," we might just as easily shift the focus on the industry: how poor deals can hurt vulnerable artists, how PR can strip musicians of artistic agency, and how valuing buzz and virality over gradual growth in an artist's career can be a recipe for disaster.

The skepticism that comes with the intersection of art and capitalism is essential and necessary, especially when we're talking about a music industry that can be adept at covering its own tracks, making it impossible to discern why some artists succeed while others don’t. Until we actually scrutinize the industry itself, though, we'll keep running in circles with these conversations, blaming artists for the machinations of a system beyond their control.