There has been a lot of discussion on music fan message boards recently about the idea of the “industrial factory”. It’s an accusation, leveled against some revolutionary musicians, that they were concocted by the industry itself. Originating in the world of rap, the idea is that if a new artist suddenly seems to be everywhere, a label is secretly manipulating them in the background. A brilliant group I had the pleasure of working with recently was accused of this. For reasons of propriety, I will not name names here, although a simple search on the Internet would reveal everything.
In my experience, it’s mostly female artists who are called factories in the industry. Indeed, it’s essentially an internet troll term, and there’s a big overlap in the Venn diagram between people who post negative comments on the internet and misogynists. The same probably goes for angry keyboard warriors and failed musicians. Upset creativity can quickly turn dark. It can’t be a question of quality – it has to be something to do with “the game”.
The idea is a fallacy. The first question that comes to mind is this: if it were possible to create “industrial factories”, why wouldn’t industry do it much more often? If labels could create on-demand hype, believe me, it would be at the top of our to-do list every day. It would save a lot of money on streaming departments, PR, radio pluggers, digital marketers, and dozens of hard-working employees.
The accusation has been leveled at artists like Santigold and Lady Gaga, who both wrote for others before becoming performers themselves. Most of us would recognize this as simple career progression, the fruit of hard work and experience. No one would argue that an assistant retail manager becoming the boss was somehow installed by dark forces. The same goes for artists who have tried different forms, formations and personalities. Have you ever heard of improvement through failure?
More recently charged are former child stars like Olivia Rodrigo and overnight sensations such as Billie Eilish. Having a pre-existing celebrity or great fresh songs that labels want a piece of doesn’t make you a plant.
The closest examples I’ve ever seen were of carefully planned launches that were given organic facades. Lily Allen is said to have “snapped” on MySpace, although she was already signed when her major label used the new platform as a tool. For most of us, that’s just clever – albeit cynical – marketing.
There is a filthy side to the music business: wealth, connections and nepotism all play their part. In large part, they provide access to the industry and improve the chances of success. From there, it all depends on the audience. You can’t make people like something, and even the greatest Svengali can’t polish the proverbial.
If an artist appears out of nowhere, it usually means a label has done their job. He didn’t just latch onto an act with skyrocketing “viewership” and streaming numbers. Hell, it could have even done development.
I’m fascinated by the level of influence that some internet warriors attribute to labels – as if they could just roll out their dark networks and get huge playlist results on radio and streaming, media coverage and asks fans. All of these things are won (much, much more often not) by blood, sweat and tears. The only exception is when you sign someone really great. Sometimes an artist arrives who simply and quickly captures a large number of people. Billie Eilish is a prime example.
And that’s what should give faith to anyone who loves music. If an artist creates something utterly brilliant – with all the craftsmanship, wit, timing and uniqueness that that word implies – and unveils it to the world, people will pay attention. I saw it happen recently, and it’s wonderful. The problem is that it’s much easier said than done.