What Is an Industry Plant?

We spoke to eight artists, journalists, and industry insiders about their definitions of an industry plant and the ways in which the terms is misunderstood.

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If you ask two passionate music fans what an industry plant is, chances are you’ll end up with two vastly different explanations.

To some, the term applies to artists who are plucked out of obscurity and given a new sound and aesthetic at the direction of their record label, then jammed down the throats of consumers through avenues like playlists and radio. Others throw the term around more broadly, deeming any musician lucky enough to have a familial connection to the industry or the good fortune of financial resources as a plant.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the first use of the phrase, but it seems to have emerged through message board culture at the start of the 2010s. A thread on the influential forum KanyeToThe from 2012 posits that everyone from Waka Flocka Flame to Lil Wayne to 50 Cent was an industry plant, albeit without any evidence.

The internet has made the mechanisms behind the music industry more apparent to fans, and as a result it has led some to become obsessed with both authenticity and the track records of artists. People sound the alarms when an act gets a big playlist placement or splashy feature without having been in the public eye—or at least on their personal radar—previously.

But of course, rushing to throw the phrase around sets a dangerous precedent. Do fans really want labels solely signing established artists already doing numbers on their own, or do they want A&Rs to take chances on unheralded talent? Should artist development be happening behind the scenes or in the public eye?

To try and figure out what exactly an industry plant is and why the concept has fascinated fans for the better part of a decade, we spoke to eight artists, journalists, and industry insiders about their personal definitions of an industry plant and what they see as misconceptions around the concept.

Guapdad 4000, Musician

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With a knack for viral moments, a charming social media-ready persona, and a lengthy rolodex of very famous friends, Guapdad 4000’s unorthodox rise has made him a target for industry plant accusations, something that he’s taken in stride.

“I remember seeing a tweet where somebody had called me an industry plant, and I was like, ‘Damn. I never thought of it, but I do probably look like an industry plant,’” he laughs. “I just thought it was funny.”

The Bay Area rapper’s personal definition of the term is brief. “A person put in a position to look and perform like a star, that wasn’t here last year,” he says. Despite making headlines for losing a bet with Drake, the work Guapdad has put in as a musician is apparent to anyone willing to look for it. He released his first mixtape, Scamboy Color, in 2017, followed it up with a slew of singles the next year, and capped 2019 with the star-studded Dior Deposits, all of which were released independently through TWNSHP.

That incremental progression is key, because while Guapdad was able to get many of his peers to contribute to his album—including artists like Chance the Rapper, Denzel Curry, and 6LACK—he’s very much working his way through the industry in a traditionally visible way. He was part of the Revenge of the Dreamers III sessions, landing several appearances on both the regular and deluxe editions, and afterwards became a stalwart opening act, touring with everyone from Earthgang to Jack Harlow to Thundercat.

Guapdad says he’s seen the term industry plant also be extended to talented artists who happen to have powerful connections, though he stops short of levying the claim himself. “They get to cut almost every corner because they know one person who just runs everything in some spectrum [of the industry] and then everyone else under that person has to go to bat for the artist,” he says.

Ultimately, the crucial element of an industry plant to him is the lack of a musical history. Particularly in hip-hop, no matter whether you come up through the typical industry path or more creative angles like Guapdad himself, you have to be able to show your work.

“It’s like if I’m a crip and I’ve been crippin’. Then someone comes in and I’ve never seen them over here, but they’re saying that they’re the same as me. I’m finna trip on that,” he says. “It won’t be received well. I won’t just be like, ‘Oh, okay. He’s got everything he’s supposed to have on. Welcome, brother!’”

A veteran of the industry on both the media and label sides, Noah Callahan-Bever doesn’t believe in the idea of an industry plant, but does understand why the term gets used. He says many people get suspicious when “an artist is on [their] radar more than that person feels they deserve to be,” which prompts them to look for conspiratorial ways to justify what is often just unsubtle marketing.

“Before you had the internet, it almost always felt like artists ‘came out of nowhere’ and then were down with this person or that person and had big connections."

Using examples like Nas and Big L, Callahan-Bever points out that in the past, fans rarely knew about an artist before they signed to a label. Getting covered in mainstream media would be their first exposure to the public, despite often putting in years of work behind the scenes. Back then, he says, there was more trust in industry gatekeepers, so few people viewed the sudden emergence of a previously unheralded act as something nefarious.

“Before you had the internet, it almost always felt like artists ‘came out of nowhere’ and then were down with this person or that person and had big connections,” he says. “All of a sudden they’re in The Source every month for three months in a row. But unless you were super plugged into the industry, it was always like, ‘Who is this new person? The Source is telling me that this is the new most important MC from Harlem.’”

There’s a push-pull relation between how much an artist is being promoted and a listener’s natural interest in them, and when that balance gets out of whack it causes people to believe something is fishy. He cites examples like Russ and Chance the Rapper, homegrown artists who built grassroots fan bases, but their buzz grew disproportionately, leading some to cry foul. Eventually, he says, the relationship between industry hype, musical output, and concrete success evened out for both, and the “industry plant” speculation died down. 

To Callahan-Bever, there’s an irony in the industry plant conversation, in that many of the people quick to use that term for an artist they are unfamiliar with actually want labels to take chances on developing smaller acts.

“I think the weird irony of the industry plant thing is that most of the people who cry foul and point fingers at ‘industry plants,’ if you were to pull them aside outside of the context of one specific artist and ask if they’d prefer for labels to be signing based on ear and gut and belief or based on TikTok algorithms, most of those people would say that ear and gut and belief is preferred and what’s missing in the industry,” Callahan-Bever says.

Kari Faux, Musician

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Growing up in Arkansas, rapper, singer, and producer Kari Faux wasn’t familiar with the term industry plant until she was already in the industry. As a DIY artist, she frequently had to find creative workarounds to her lack of funding, and early on that led to frustration about artists who chose to embrace a lo-fi aesthetic while simultaneously downplaying the record label money behind them.

“I used to feel really strongly about artists who were like, ‘I’m independent. I’m doing this all by myself. Look at me, I’m shooting DIY videos and mixing music in my bedroom,’ she says. “But they were actually signed the entire time. That shit used to really bug me, but now the lines are so blurred between independent and signed artists, that I don’t know if it really matters.”

Faux personally defines an industry plant as “an artist who is being groomed and developed away from the public eye by a label,” only to be placed in the spotlight inorganically with a hit song or a viral moment. To her though, that initial moment doesn’t mean much unless the artist has some staying power or broader appeal, because “people are always expecting that follow-up. When that comes it’s the real determining factor in whether or not you’re going to last.”

"If you don’t have at least an ounce of passion behind what you do and just want instant fame, it’s only going to last so long." - Kari Faux

For Faux, her breakout moment was 2014’s “No Small Talk,” a bassy blast of southern rap that showcased her charm and sharp flows, as well as her knack for directing her own videos. The track helped put her on the map, but she had no desire to let it define her. “The moment I realized that was what people wanted from me, I was like, ‘I’m not going to give that to you again,’” she says, fresh off the release of the rap-rock throwback “While God Was Sleepin’...”

Faux continues to release music independently and is set to put out her Lowkey Superstar mixtape in the near future. She no longer feels that resentment towards signed artists masquerading as DIY acts, because she’s confident money and media saturation alone aren’t enough to make someone catch on.

“I’m such an artsy bitch, I’m all about passion and caring about what you do,” she says. “If you don’t have at least an ounce of passion behind what you do and just want instant fame, it’s only going to last so long.”

"Your favorite rapper is probably not an industry plant, but your 14th favorite rapper probably is. An industry plant is when a major label or well-connected managers and freelance A&Rs pluck an otherwise obscure artist from the lower depths of SoundCloud or YouTube and use their vast network to procure them co-signs, big budget producers, expensive guest features, expansive profiles in mainstream publications, and lucrative playlist placements. Meanwhile, their industry Medicis downplay any affiliation. The ascent has to appear organic and strictly off 'the music,' even though no one in their hometown has ever heard of them. They've never played tiny club shows or paid dues of any sort. They are rap's silver spoons. The ones who often don't have any interest in rap: who consider themselves pop, who want to do fashion, appear in the second largest font on the Coachella poster, be in Virgil [Abloh’s] Instagram. The same types that WC mocked over 30 years ago: suckers who never paid dues." - Jeff Weiss

Baby Goth, Musician

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Rapper and singer Baby Goth understands why she was saddled with the industry plant label early in her career. She emerged onto the scene already signed to Republic Records, and with relatively little information available online after changing her stage name. But she stresses that all of her artistic decisions were her own, and a key aspect of her personal definition of industry plant is that the aesthetic choices being made are coming from the label or financial backer, not the musician themselves.

“I define the term industry plant as an artist who was ‘created’ by a label to push their own propaganda—a certain sound or image—that didn't already belong to that artist. Kind of like a puppet and [the label is the] puppeteer,” she says.

Baby Goth explains that she was frustrated by the accusation, because it instantly discredited her creatively, despite having written the songs on her self-titled EP, designed her logo and merch, and conceptualized the visual treatments for her music videos.

“I define the term industry plant as an artist who was ‘created’ by a label to push their own propaganda—a certain sound or image—that didn't already belong to that artist. Kind of like a puppet and [the label is the] puppeteer."

She says there’s a fundamental misconception among many fans about how labels work with artists that leads to much speculation.

“I think people nowadays use the term industry plant to describe anyone who has been signed to a label early on in their career,” she says. 

She also highlights an important aspect of the industry plant label: it sticks. In some cases, it can only take one accusation to create a perception that lingers for years. A video accusing Baby Goth of being a plant made by the account Progresss from January 2019 has over 1 million views, and while she didn’t specify whether it was this specific takedown attempt, she said she confronted one content creator over that sort of video. 

“I was also labeled [a plant] because a YouTuber created a video about me and he had at least half of the facts wrong,” she recalls. “Me and an ex-coworker reached out to him requesting he remove the post because it had contained so much false information. We offered him my very first interview in exchange. He refused because he already had views on the video.”

A year after putting out her first EP, she has appeared on the Birds of Prey soundtrack and released a handful of singles, continuing to distance herself from the industry plant label that dogged her early on. 

Music writer Cherie Hu, whose reporting focuses on technology and innovation within the global music business, mentions deception as a crucial component of an industry plant. The artist has to deliberately be downplaying or outright denying the significant backing they have to really warrant being called a plant.

“There’s an artist who claims to be DIY or independent or homegrown or organic, but actually has a highly inorganic machine behind them in some way, whether that’s a major label deal or a form of corporate sponsorship,” Hu says. “Suddenly, this artist no one knows about is on the radio now or getting very mainstream real estate, and a lot of people don’t know why, so it leads to them lying about their backstory.”

That conscious dishonesty is critical, and she makes a point of noting that, to her, artists who simply have a leg up on their peers due to a relationship or fortuitous circumstance don’t meet the criteria.

“I’ve heard a lot of people use the phrase to describe artists who have really good connections to the music industry. Their parents know the main guy at some Top 40 radio station or the person at a label who oversees A&R,” she says. “A lot of people will see those kinds of artists as industry plants, but I would not characterize them as that.”

Oftentimes, fans will latch onto any sort of perceived connection and play it up to try and delegitimize an artist’s rise. Acts who have faced these accusations include Clairo, whose father was a marketing officer at Converse, and one of the executives behind their music program Rubber Tracks, and Billie Eilish, whose parents, some speculated, helped her break into the industry.

Hu says that as technology has reshaped music in the last decade, the way an industry plant can be created has changed, too. She points to the engineering of viral moments on platforms like YouTube and TikTok, both how much more common they are nowadays than in years past, and how influencers can be paid to promote hashtags and even songs. 

“The concept of something going viral I think is older [than the idea of an industry plant], and once there was more awareness of how easy it was to stage things going viral online, maybe people started having more conversations about the concept of an industry plant,” she says. As the internet has democratized music, Hu explains that there is a broader call for transparency by fans. Though well intentioned, she says it can often lead to misguided skepticism about any artist whose rise to prominence they don’t fully grasp.

“If there’s something that doesn’t compute for them that they don’t totally understand, I feel like that lack of understanding immediately leads them to categorize a given artist as a plant,” she concludes.

Sada Baby, Musician

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Detroit rapper Sada Baby has a succinct explanation of what an industry plant is in his eyes. “My definition of an industry plant is a n***a popping up with more exposure than me, who can’t fuck with me,” he says.

His input, like much of his stellar discography, is boastful and wryly funny, but Sada is kind of a perfect example of a musician who could never be branded with the industry plant label. After establishing strong hometown support in Detroit, he emerged in the national consciousness with 2017’s Skuba Baby. Since then he’s built a passionate, widespread fan base on his own that has carried over now that he’s signed to Asylum Records, a Warner Music subsidiary.

Sada had a breakout moment with 2018’s “Bloxk Party,” but explains that he is glad the song didn’t become so ubiquitous it would have led to skepticism about his place in the industry. The prolific MC is focused on consistent releases and music videos that showcase his charisma and penchant for unique references.

"My definition of an industry plant is a n***a popping up with more exposure than me, who can’t fuck with me." - Sada Baby

“I’m happy as hell that songs of mine that have gotten big didn’t get colossally big,” he says. “My catalog is just good as a whole. It ain’t like all I’ve got is ‘Bloxk Party’ or all I’ve got is ‘Stacy.’ That’s cap.”

Sada is currently working on his debut album, which may well vault him from exciting rising rapper to mainstream national star, but he’s made sure that no matter how popular he gets, no one could ever throw the industry plant label at him.

"People like to use the phrase 'industry plant' when an artist seems to pop up and become a big star very quickly without going through the traditional struggling artist phase. When they haven’t developed an organic fanbase on their own without industry muscle behind them. To me, a true industry plant is an artist who pretends to be independent, but who actually has the backing of a major label. Industry plants have changed somewhat over time, in hip-hop at least. 10 years ago, there seemed to be more cases of unsigned rappers who built up big audiences online and got buzz on blogs before ever signing record deals. Now, if you stumble across a rapper with a couple hot songs online, more often than not, you'll find out they're already signed with a label.

"I personally hate the term 'industry plant,' because it's usually used by people who don't have a strong grasp of how the music industry actually works. More often than not, if a label signs an artist and does a good job of actually developing them, they'll be patient when it comes time to release songs. This might make it look like the artist is a 'plant' that just popped up out of nowhere with a bunch of industry connections, but it actually just means the label was doing their job and properly developing the artist before rolling out music. Of course, industry support isn't everything. A label can develop an artist and set them up with the right resources and connections, but if the music isn't there and the artist isn't building a loyal fanbase, it won't matter. As a journalist, I'll never cover an artist just because they have the right label support and connections. The music needs to be great. That's what really matters." - Eric Skelton