This week, rock band Picture Parlour faced an online backlash for being an ‘industry plant’ – but success isn’t always an elaborate conspiracy
For today’s musicians, overnight success can be a poisoned chalice. If your rise to prominence appears too frictionless or easy, there’s a good chance that people will accuse you of being an “industry plant”. From that point onwards, everything you achieve will become tainted with suspicion.
While it has no fixed definition, “industry plant” is generally agreed to describe a situation where a new artist or band pretends to be independent, all the while secretly enjoying financial backing and industry support. The charge has been leveled at a number of commercial artists, including Lana del Rey, Lizzo, and Billie Eilish, but an element of deception is key – it would be a redundant way of describing an obviously manufactured boyband. Instead, it’s about an artist being marketed in a cynical and inauthentic way, which is partly why it inspires such indignation: no one likes to be taken for a fool.
The term has been around for a while, first originating in hip hop culture in the early 2010s, but its power to ignite controversy is as strong as ever. This week, the discourse reared its head again when a new rock band – Picture Parlour – appeared on the cover of NME. Because they had only played their first gig six months prior, only released their first single the day before, and only had 30 monthly listeners on Spotify, this inspired a furious backlash on social media. Not only were the band labeled an industry plant, they were accused of benefiting from nepotism and having rich parents, based on little evidence beyond a general vibe and unsubstantiated hearsay. The story of their career – including the detail that Courtney Love happened to be present at their very first gig and posted an Instagram story about it – was pored over for inconsistencies. At times, this scrutiny veered into the conspiratorial: people tried to find out what their parents did for a living, posting screenshots of random middle-aged men, and queried the plausibility of them being friends with someone who owns a camper van.
These days, it’s much easier to quantify how much “buzz” a band really has, using hard data like Spotify streams, YouTube plays and social media follower counts. While all of these metrics are subject to manipulation, the internet can also afford a more organic kind of success: PRs might be able push a song towards virality, but it’s not something that can be bought outright. So when a band appears to have very little online following, it’s unsurprising that audiences are suspicious at being told they are a “word-of-mouth sensation” – wouldn’t we have heard of them if that were true? Across the board, we tend to judge cultural relevance in terms of online reach.
Maybe we’ve forgotten that hype can be generated elsewhere, in real world spaces, at gigs we haven’t attended. It’s not so implausible that a band could generate hype and get discovered by a high-profile management agency, simply by playing live. The existence of ‘industry plants’, rather than being a conspiracy theory, is how the music industry has always operated – the term could apply to just about any band who get scouted and then heavily promoted. While Picture Parlour weren’t dreamed up in an executive boardroom, it’s clearly true that the music industry decides to throw its weight behind certain bands and not others. Some artists make it big organically, after years of slogging away, while others are plucked out of obscurity and chosen for stardom (or as close to ‘stardom’ as you can get as a rock band in 2023.)
According to Stuart Bennet, associate director at Deacon Communications, a music PR agency, the backlash against Picture Parlour has been over-the-top. “They seem to have plugged away in bands for years and hit a hot streak with this one,” he says. “I think it’s good to be skeptical about what you’re being fed and challenging the dynamics within the music industry. There are undoubtedly elements of privilege and power that come into which bands are picked up. But in this case, it seems a bit misdirected towards a band who essentially seem to have done something rather normal.”
Yeah so about this. A mate who's also a Music Journalist knows the one on the right. Her family are absolutely minted, shock, surprise.— Not Brian Kidd's Mate (@Dannyjm__) June 20, 2023
31 monthly listeners and they're supporting BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN and MANIC STREET PREACHERS
Read this. the music scene is an absolute joke. https://t.co/v9AeIL8T34pic.twitter.com/qjGewZhwtF
When you look back at the ‘industry plant’ controversies of the last few years, it’s notable that most of them (including Wet Leg, Panic Shack, The Last Dinner Party, Tramp Stamps and now Picture Parlour) have involved bands that are fronted by women. For a certain kind of male rock fan, it’s a more plausible explanation than believing these bands made it off the back of their own talents – particularly as “being young and good looking” is often a core feature of the complaint. Bands fronted by men, which have had similar trajectories and make music of similar quality, aren’t accused of being industry plants at the same frequency, although it has been known to happen – the “private school”/ “rich parents” allegation seems to be more gender-neutral.
But according to Chardine Taylor Stone, a Black Feminist scholar and the drummer with punk band Big Joanie, it’s reductive to dismiss concerns about ‘industry plants’ as inherently sexist. There are a wider range of disparities at play: as she points out, it’s comparatively rare to see Black women or Black artists generally on the cover of NME. “The industry saw the rise of underground feminist women bands but rather than support those grassroots bands as they are, an industry of men decided to water that movement down and support the kind of women they find less threatening: nice young white middle class women,” she tells Dazed. “Criticising that is not misogyny, it’s exposing the industry's sexism, it draws attention to how the industry patronises audiences and how it only allows women to prosper if they fulfill certain beauty standards and don’t cause too much of a fuss.”
Part of the reason why these controversies get so heated, I think, is because they are tapping into anger that goes beyond the inner workings of the music industry. Picture Parlour, like many bands before them, have become a canvas onto which people have projected a wide range of grievances, many of which are entirely justified. We don’t know how rich the band’s parents are: what we do know is that, in general, the creative industries are becoming more exclusionary and working class musicians are becoming rarer. If you guessed that every hyped new indie band that breaks through is middle class, you would – statistically – have a greater chance of being correct than mistaken. We should be thinking more critically about which artists the music industry chooses to promote, which artists are excluded, and the barriers which prevent some people from making music in the first place. But there are better ways to go about that than cyber-bullying some random band.