Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
Groan. OK, I guess we have to talk about my least favorite pop culture conspiracy theory even though it’s the silliest idea to bubble up out of the pop culture swamps for a while. The notion of the “industry plant” has returned in full force following this week release of a 2018 video clip where Kanye is on the phone saying “Cardi B is a plant by the Illuminati.”
I mean, sure, why not? When Kanye says insane things about Hitler, people say, “Oh, he has mental issues and y’all should leave him alone,” but when he speaks to a conspiracy theory that you like, it’s, “Hey, Kanye’s problem is too much truth-telling.” Yeah, OK.
The “industry plant” idea is the Illuminati for pop culture lovers. It says there’s a shadowy cabal of elites who control the pop culture world who can turn whoever they want into a star. When people say “industry plant,” they mean an artist who the music industry (we’ll actually define that later) just decided to turn into a star as opposed to someone who fans actually like. “Industry plants” are artists who seem to blow up very quickly or don’t seem to have much talent — their success is dismissed as ordained by industry gods rather than earned by winning over fans. “Industry plant” is a slur that attacks the authenticity of the artist and explains the core of their success as something that was bestowed and not won. The slur kind of says people don’t actually like this artist and they don’t deserve their success.
Just so we’re clear, there is no such thing as an industry plant. There’s no way for the industry to just pick someone and make them a star. I mean, what they do all the time is pick someone and make them a star but most recording labels are constantly pushing many artists on us all the time, and most of their attempts fail. When Lyor Cohen was the president of Def Jam Records, he told me that he loved the record business because one successful act would pay for nine flops. This meant his success rate could be extremely low and the label would still turn a profit. If a major label is succeeding 10% or even 20% of the time, how could you believe that they could just pick someone and plant them into the world?
OK, let’s step back and define what the music industry is. It’s not a singular entity that cooperates naturally. It’s not an engine that flows together. For someone to make it is almost a miracle. There are record labels that pay advances to artists and distribute their music. There are streaming services and radio stations that are critical to creating exposure. Radio can be manipulated in many different ways. In the past, there was a fairly overt sort of payola where labels paid to get records played. That’s not done anymore, but I know labels will fly radio execs and hosts to swanky vacations in beautiful spots and then later ask them to play their artists’ records. It isn’t a direct quid pro quo like payola but everyone’s getting taken care of. Radio is manipulatable by labels, but just because you get one or two songs in heavy rotation does not mean that fans are going to get on board. And if the artist isn’t hitting — if people turn the station when that song comes on, it will get dropped from the station’s playlists.
To become famous an artist must also get attention from media — magazines, websites, and TV shows. These outlets are generally not susceptible to the sorts of, uh, wooing that works in radio. It’s not that they have a higher level of ethics but it’s just not how that business works. I’ve been on that side of the industry for decades. Media picks up on artists who the people who run the platform are excited about. Or the artists that the platform’s fans are interested in. Or the artists that other media is talking about. Media is far more likely to be tempted to talk about someone because another outlet is talking about them, rather than by some sort of bribe. None of this is outright manipulation.
There are also artist managers and concert promoters who are essential to the business of the industry. They also can’t be easily manipulated. Everyone in this entire ecosystem — especially the labels, the promoters and the managers — is only doing things that will make them money. If they push out a star who doesn’t have a genuine fan base, they’re just spending money and getting no return. None of this scenario means anything if it doesn’t end with fans spending money on music, concert tickets, merchandise, etc.
Also, if you want the artist to leap outside of a specific genre and become a pop culture figure where they can make the long dollars you need the help of some of the larger pop cultural forces like “SNL,” Fallon, Colbert, Kimmel, Vogue. The vision of one person making a call and saying “OK, this year, we’re pushing Cardi. Radio and Anna Wintour and Spotify, you know what to do,” is crazy. There’s not an Illuminati controlling the music business and working together to elevate certain people. Each link in the chain is working for their own interest.
To say that Cardi, of all people, is a plant is absurd. She’s an extraordinary artist. The sound of her voice along with the way she uses and misuses English plus the funny things she says make her truly unique. Her first single, “Bodak Yellow,” is one of the greatest performances of rapping, in terms of the way she delivers the record, that I’ve ever heard. She came into music after building on her name on the popular reality show “Love & Hip Hop: New York.” She didn’t really come out of nowhere. There were already millions who liked her. The massive career she’s built since then should prove that she’s an extraordinary talent who deserves to be a star. And for Kanye of all people to diss someone for not writing their own lyrics is… something. The notion that Cardi is a plant is crazy — if you could turn anyone into a star, who would choose a woman who sounds like she has trouble with the English language? No, Cardi constructed a winning package, and her label made sure the world knew about her and then the people fell in love with her.
In the Kanye phone call recording, he also says Cardi is a plant meant to dislodge Nicki Minaj.
No. Cardi got a chance because of Nicki. It was because of Nicki’s massive success that a label was willing to take a chance on Cardi. When Megan followed them and was also a rapid success, more labels followed with more women rappers because labels tend to follow each other. If one has success with a woman who raps, or a singer from Seattle, or a guitarist who doesn’t wear shoes, then another label will try to find an artist just like them. When there were three successful women in the game, many labels leapt to find more women. That explains the explosion in female rappers we’ve seen over the past few years.
When Cardi was accused of being an industry plant, she said on her Instagram, “You can’t buy the general public, no machine, no money can buy that … you can’t buy the people.” This is true. You can’t trick people into liking something they don’t like. You can create awareness but if the fans aren’t into it, it will die off.
Every artist spends a lot of their own money to get noticed by a label, and if they do, the label spends millions recording and promoting them. If that isn’t followed by fans spending their money on the artist then the whole venture is a failure. The point is for fans to literally buy in. If a label pushes out an artist, and the people don’t like them then no money will come in.
A veteran label exec told me earlier this week, “Labels don’t care who becomes a star. No one’s spending money on something that’s not making them money.” He said labels can decide one of their artists is a priority and call in every possible favor and use their marketing power and that can get you off the ground, but it does not promise success.
If there was a machine-like aspect to it where labels can say, OK, we know that if we do this and that, then this person will become a star, they would do that all the time. As Daniel Dylan Wray said in Loud and Quiet, “If there was some kind of ready-made, workable formula to break young artists into overnight sensations and viral megastars, then we’d be drowning in industry plants.” There would not be lots of artists who get signed, get paid an advance, and then don’t become stars, never earning back the money the label spent on them. After Billie Eilish was accused of being an industry plant, she said, “It’s actually impossible to make someone genuinely successful and it be fake.” Fake as in there aren’t actually any fans.
Stop talking about industry plants. There are no industry plants. “Only idiots talk about industry plants.” It’s not a thing. Please stop. You’re hurting my brain.
Touré is a host and Creative Director at theGrio. He is the host of Masters of the Game on theGrioTV. He is also the host and creator of the docuseries podcast “Being Black: The ’80s” and the animated show “Star Stories with Toure” which you can find at -.com/starstories. He is also the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is the author of eight books including the Prince biography Nothing Compares 2 U and the ebook The Ivy League Counterfeiter.
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