On… ‘industry plants’ and the false comfort of conspiracy theories

MBW Views is a series of exclusive op/eds from eminent music industry people… with something to say.  The following comes from Eamonn Forde, a long-time music industry journalist, and the author of The Final Days of EMI: Selling the Pig. UK-based Forde’s new book, Leaving The Building: The Lucrative Afterlife of Music Estates, is out now via Omnibus Press. 

The “grassy knoll” in Dallas in November 1963. Stanley Kubrick building a synthetic lunar surface in a secret soundstage at some point in 1969 and getting people in astronaut costumes to hop around it. And a pop band, made up of young women, winning both Rising Star at the Brits and the BBC’s Sound Of 2024 poll before their debut album even came out.

These are among the great conspiracy theories of the past half century. For the last of the three – The Last Dinner Party – many reviews of their (very good) debut album, when it came out recently, were seemingly contractually obliged to include some reference to the allegation that they only got this effusive praise and blanket support because they are an “industry plant”, admittedly often citing the rumour in order to dismiss it. Yet it is the acrid miasma that continues to hang around the band. (Yes, I am aware that writing about people writing about the accusation is causing a multiplier effect.)

The “industry plant” thesis started mutating and multiplying in April 2023 when The Last Dinner Party played a gig at Camden Assembly in London that was seemingly attended by every music reviewer in the country and who all reached for the same superlatives. That was quickly followed by the release of their debut single that was received with even more delirium.

The incredible speed at which industry consensus solidified was taken as proof that something else, something much more machiavellian, was happening behind the scenes. (What was really happening behind the scenes was an inherent critical laziness and media FOMO, but that’s a less explosive story.)

The band were, runs the conspiracy, created by a mendacious team. They (maybe?) have parents in the industry. One of them was classically trained at Guildhall School Of Music & Drama. Another was a jazz guitarist who had done musical theatre and even played in a Queen tribute band, as well as also studying at Guildhall. None of these places are filthy backrooms in East London pubs where bands are supposed to start. Gotcha.

Plus some of them appear to be somewhat-to-very posh, so must have used their familial and school tie connections at Horse & Hound, The Lady and Country Life, those white-hot crucibles of music criticism, to get ahead. Double gotcha.

Oh, and they are all female and so they could not possibly have achieved anything without outside (male) help. Triple gotcha.

Yes, they are signed to Island Records/Universal Music Group, so have the weight of the biggest record company in the world behind them.

Yes, they are managed by Q Prime, one of the most powerful management companies in the world.

Yes, they are signed to CAA, one of the biggest booking agencies in the UK.

But, and here’s the piece of the “industry plant” jigsaw that doesn’t fit: loads of acts are signed to major labels; loads of acts have huge management teams behind them; and loads of acts have huge bookers on board; but still their success to date amounts to the square root of fuck all.

To level the accusations of “industry plant” at them is presuming the music industry runs with a lazer-sharp marketing power, an unshakable influence and a success rate that it, empirically, does not have. If planting acts were that simple, record company failure rates would not be as chilling as they are.

If such mythical beasts actually existed, you would not have A&R and marketing teams staring bleakly into the multiple and deep, deep money pits they pitchfork bales of cash into in the hope one of them will produce a towering money tree.

Looking at the P&L across a major-signed roster can sometimes feel like reading an obituary.

It is worth remembering that the last “industry plant” act was, apparently, Wet Leg (also fronted by women, also “posh”). Yet they were signed to Domino. An independent record label that is not, not as far as I can tell, part of a major.

There is something disjointed here about a) public perception of/presumption about how “controlling” the music business is and b) the cold reality that this is a business predicated on a ludicrously high failure rate.

This all feeds into the luxurious comfort of conspiracy theories that is the default setting for a sizeable chunk of the internet today. Since Trump, we now have the steady rise of the doublethink of “alternative facts”. Saying something exists is now enough to make it real. It could happen, so that means it did happen.

There are a lot of studies into the psychology of conspiracy theories – why people create them, why they circulate and why they are so readily believed.

“The researchers found that overall, people were motivated to believe in conspiracy theories by a need to understand and feel safe in their environment and a need to feel like the community they identify with is superior to others,” wrote the American Psychological Association of one such study. “The researchers also found that people with certain personality traits, such as a sense of antagonism toward others and high levels of paranoia, were more prone to believe conspiracy theories. Those who strongly believed in conspiracy theories were also more likely to be insecure, paranoid, emotionally volatile, impulsive, suspicious, withdrawn, manipulative, egocentric and eccentric.”

The “secret” here, if there is one, is that marketing tries to bring order to chaos in music because no one really knows what is going to fly. But it is only the surface sheen of order.

Conspiracy theories thrive and mutate entirely on the belief that there is an order – a hidden, duplicitous order – behind everything and controlling everything. It is all scripted. There is no chance, no luck, no serendipity.

Conspiracy theories are driven by people who want to make it clear they “see through” the official narrative, that they can spot the hidden patterns, that only they have the elite critical prowess to pick apart the falsehoods that everyone else falls for. They want to place a logical frame around the inherently illogical. Their forensic work basically involves weaving every “clue” they find into a giant tapestry that barks: THIS IS ALL A LIE AND ONLY I CAN EXPOSE IT.

At the extreme end, maybe the notion of the “industry plant” could be applied to the talent show route, where groups are assembled or developed on screen on X Factor or American Idol. It is all done in plain sight. The audience is complicit. No one is being hoodwinked.

And look how unsuccessful that has proven to be in the long term. A handful of acts have a few months in the sun, but only the rare creature (One Direction, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) come even close to lasting the distance.

“The music business, despite its claims of ordered professionalism, is predicated entirely on unpredictability.”

Hype and marketing are real, but the fact of their existence is not enough to guarantee success. The music business, despite its claims of ordered professionalism, is predicated entirely on unpredictability. Success can only ever be explained in retrospect (when you tie yourself in knots to say that, of course, X leads to Y leads to Z), never guaranteed and plotted in advance.

(The one thing that is deliberately not talked about in all of this is that the rapid ascent of an act does not happen without consequence. Fame, and the multitude of pressures (artistic, commercial, psychological) that come with it, is rarely benign. Being catapulted into ubiquity can come with a cruel cost. Acts, shooting from nowhere into this unreality, can buckle under the pressure, lose direction and fall apart. What appears to be a comet can turn out to be a fireball. An industry complicit in whipping up a ballyhoo cannot absolve themselves of guilt when things stop going in the direction they hoped for.)

The music business, like alchemists, cannot convincingly create gold discs out of base metals. But it can absolutely capitalise on it when it first starts to appear, treating it all like forced rhubarb (maybe this is where the “plant” analogy comes from). When someone raises the “industry plant” accusation, what they are really acknowledging is that hyperbole is unmoored from logic and merely increases the odds that the end result will be implosion.

To accuse the music industry of being clever and cunning enough to enact a complex conspiracy is giving it an intelligence and a prescience that it categorically does not deserve. When you look at everything else the music industry does, it becomes horribly obvious that such theories cannot support their own weight.

The one conspiracy theory the industry does not want to admit to is this: if they were so good at cooking up enormously successful artists, then it would not waste so much money launching acts that haemorrhage cash.

In the music business, failure is the norm and success is the outlier. Not the other way around.

Or maybe that’s what they want you to believe.Music Business Worldwide

Related Posts