Posted on July 12, 2022 in Technology

The Evolution of The Self-Made Singer: “Did I Just Write the Anthem of the Summer?”

Industry Plants and The Internet

An industry plant is a band or singer that’s been ‘planted’ by the ‘industry’. Or, to rephrase, these are musicians who a record label has handpicked to be the next ‘big thing’. These musicians might be a gap-filler for the record label, intended to sing pre-written songs other artists rejected, or they might be talented, but not multi-talented in the way they’d need to be to succeed without the label’s backing. If they have connections, they can squeeze in where other people in their situation would have had to give up. Plants still have to have talent, but they’ll often have materials, content, and funding provided for them, which makes their life much easier when it comes to recording and planning for tours.

To be clear, the critics on the internet don’t dislike industry plants – they just don’t like it when it’s obvious or lacking real talent. Imagine Dragons, whose lead singer is the son of a powerful lawyer at an entertainment industry law firm, could be considered a plant by most standards, but they have a lot of real fans who genuinely like their music. It’s not bad to have connections, and many good artists just happen to be related to someone who knows a guy, so basing tastes on some purity standard of being completely self-made with no connections whatsoever would cut out a huge number of really good musicians.

But when it’s obvious, and the band’s not really that good, people online haaaate them. This new generation of social media means that bands can buy follower bots, get fake people to comment things on their pages, and in general use money to smooth the way to becoming viral. Once you look like a big deal, more people are going to pay attention to you. David Bowie famously got his start by acting like Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was already a big deal, and locals just hadn’t heard of it yet –imagine doing that but then failing to deliver onstage despite your apparent thousands to millions of ‘real’ fans! Getting hyped for someone that’s supposed to be really cool and well-known already only for them to suck is very disappointing. It feels like a waste of time. The worst example in recent memory was the band Tramp Stamps. Tramp Stamps appeared on TikTok and Tumblr overnight, had way too many Instagram followers for how new the account was (and how few comments appeared on each post despite thousands of followers, allegedly), and then promptly crashed and burned as it became clear the band didn’t actually know their target audience, how to write pop punk music, or how to pander effectively. Trashing Tramp Stamps was really fun for a lot of people online because they made themselves such an easy, unlikeable target.

Unfortunately, that led to a lot of criticizing non-plant bands who hadn’t bought followers and actually had a bit of a fanbase independently before coming to TikTok, meaning they had enough money to fund music videos and merch and the like. One of the things that sets apart plants from non-plants is that they seem to have all that infrastructure already set up and ready to receive them despite a lack of demand, so when the demand is hidden from mainstream view (which happens a lot with niche bands) mainstream listeners mistake the widening horizons of the band for being a plant. If you want to make it big on TikTok, you have to make it clear that either A) you already have a fanbase or B) this music is being made in your garage. The internet expects a certain pathway to success from young independent musicians (indie and punk especially) and won’t let them deviate from it.

A Lack Of Confidence in the Product

As such, instead of trying to explain to several thousand people that just because they hadn’t heard of your band doesn’t mean the band is new or is a plant or anything else, some bands choose to grovel to the algorithmic For You page instead by pretending that both A) and B) are true. “I need fans! You should be my fan, it would really help me out, because look –  I’m recording at my house!” If it sounds like begging and guilt tripping, that’s because it is. Constantly defending yourself online to strangers, especially when you make music that’s outside the flavor of the month, is exhausting, so I don’t blame these musicians for trying something new. It works really well if it’s done right, though: the lady who wrote ABCDEFU got big on TikTok by emphasizing how much of her success was reliant on the early fans who listened to her and stuck by her, which of course would make you feel guilty for ‘abandoning’ her if you stopped streaming it. The problem is that once they have a following, it sounds like they’re fishing for compliments, and they have to update their strategy. But when you’ve built an online following on your humble beginnings, and you don’t have a manager or any marketing experience, what do you do?

From an outside perspective, you’ve earned the right to display some confidence! However, if you’ve only practiced self-effacing marketing, getting the right amount of confidence is going to be tough, especially on a platform like TikTok where relatively small bands may as well be Top 40 hits for the genre niche they fill. As such, it’s difficult to tell where you actually stand relative to other bands. Do you have the mass appeal necessary to say you wrote a summer anthem, without any caveats? When people talk about you offline, do they call you a hidden gem? If you don’t know the answer to these, it’s easy to overestimate a good thing.

Did I Just Write the Breakup Hit of the Summer?

Before it became a meme, artists would put a question in their TikTok thumbnail to try and get people to click, so they could learn the answer. Questions like “Did I just write the Emo Hit of the Summer?” “Did I just write the next biggest breakup song?” Litter the videos of artists who are in the awkward in-between stage of earned humility and earned confidence. Notice that they’re questions, not statements, to try and soften the blow of all that idea implies while simultaneously inviting people to come check it out and judge for themselves. While that works sometimes, it doesn’t work on the cool, hip side of TikTok because it’s cringe to not know whether or not your fans like you enough to call your song their song of the summer. What are you making that you’re asking that question? If you weren’t sure you liked it, why did you release it? It’s in direct contrast to the confidence they’re supposed to have about their music.

The answer is no. It’s always no. Especially online. No matter what genre of singer is asking this question, they’re writing music off of a standard that boils down to ‘you’ll know it when you see it’. Sometimes songs of the summer are year(s) old before they resurface like a lich because the internet has completely changed how these things work. Right now, in June of 2022, Running up that Hill by Kate Bush is super popular because it was featured in the show Stranger Things. That might very well end up being a song of the summer for people who liked the show and like pop. Movies and TV shows have done that too, but TikTok allows this to happen on a new scale. Sometimes a meme alone revives a song from the archives.

By asking, the musician who wrote it jinxed it into impossibility! A song of the summer does not need to state it’s the song of the summer; A song of the summer is not declared before summer is over; a song of the summer from a niche genre is only going to be the song of the summer for that genre. Trying to branch out and make something generic enough that everyone likes it creates a song that nobody loves with all their heart. It’s often reliant on current trends (right now, people are still trying to make rewritten angry nursery rhyme songs chasing the success of ABCDEFU) and as such comes out rushed.

This happens to big labels and well-recognized pop stars too: the Trolls movie featured an original called Wavy by Justin Timberlake, which  was released early so it could contend for song of the summer. It didn’t win and wore out its welcome by the time the movie came out. These ‘Did I Write the X of Y’ songs are missing the forest for the trees, trying to plant a song that didn’t need to be planted, hedging bets on a song that’s supposed to be good enough to speak for itself as the next big breakup song. Even worse, it’s almost entirely tied to TikTok!

In an effort to avoid being mistaken as plants, they achieve the same generic sound and generic branding a label would provide a plant to ensure their success as they build a fandom. Writing too niche for the internet is almost impossible – people were listening to the sound of a jammed dot-matrix printer for a while. It seems like going too generic is a far bigger magnet for trouble than going niche!