Eliza Levinson investigates the Disney-made singer Olivia Rodrigo’s instant popularity and the wide world of Spotify payola, aka manipulating streaming stats for money. Plus the week’s recap: Powerpuffs, Cruella, TikTok.
I was scouring through a celebrity gossip Facebook group (long story) when I came across this post:
The post came with a screenshot of the astronomical streaming numbers for Olivia Rodrigo’s debut album, Sour, which — if you’ve been online — you’ve probably read at least a meme about. The implication of the combined media was this: Olivia Rodrigo is an industry plant, and the jaw-dropping, record-smashing success of her first-ever record is largely due to some neo-payola scheme.
This got me thinking. What, exactly, is an “industry plant?” I’d first heard the term in 2019, when Billie Eilish got extremely famous really fast, but (being from LA) I kind of assumed that it just meant that she’d gone to private school on the west side and got signed by her parents’ friend or something. A tertiary online search yielded an array of Reddit forums and a smattering of conspiratorial YouTube voiceover slideshows, which made me feel like I was on the right track.
According to articles in Complex and Medium, the idea of an “industry plant” is a particularly raw nerve for rap and hip hop musicians: Drake, for example — someone who claims to represent a certain community, or who references their “come up” (see: Drake’s “Started From The Bottom”) — but who is revealed to have intimate inner connections with the industry (see: Drake’s turn as Jimmy on the TV show Degrassi).
When applied to the music industry broadly, an “industry plant,” according to Complex, refers to an artist who suddenly skyrockets to massive celebrity seemingly out of nowhere. It’s then revealed either that higher-ups in the music industry are pulling strings to make this person the celebrity of the moment, or that the new celeb in question did have some inherited wealth/family connections of the kind I’d originally assumed before.
This, then, led me to my next question: isn’t this, like, how the industry (or capitalism) works? (That doesn’t mean it’s good; it’s just how it’s been.) I mean, sure, we’d love to think that musicians become rich and famous just because they’re just blessed with more God-given talent than everyone else, but if the documentary Dig! about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and the Dandy Warhols OR the movie Josie and the Pussycats taught me anything, it’s that artistic genius is really secondary to luck, access, and shameless hustle when it comes to getting famous.
‘Twas ever thus … which is also part of why the rumors about some kind of neo-payola scheme to get Rodrigo’s albums trending piqued my interest. In case you have never seen the movie or musical Dreamgirls and the iconic song “Steppin’ To The Bad Side,” “payola” refers to a longstanding — and illegal — practice in the music industry wherein record labels would pay commercial radio stations to play the latest releases of what are today known as “industry plants” (aka, an act a label is trying to make The Next Big Thing).
Since 2019, Rolling Stone has been covering “streaming manipulation.” In June of that year, industry members started to get serious about a trend they were noticing: Spotify track plays would suddenly, inexplicably, and exponentially spike. There were three dominant kinds of manipulation at play: first, the most traditional contemporary take on payola, where artists — big or small — would pay popular playlist makers to put their tracks onto playlists with lots of followers. In a second, more 21st century version, tracks would be played over and over by “computerized click farms and bots.” A final trend — not entirely relevant for our purposes — was a sort of hacker-type IP issue, where anonymous internet users compile unreleased tracks by existing musicians and repackage them as new albums, then profit off of them.
Around the time Rolling Stone published this piece, some of the music industry’s most prominent members — Universal, Spotify, Amazon, Warner, and Sony among them — signed a “pledge against fake streams.” Still, as Elias Leight has noted, the “pledge” is of value in word only: traditional payola is enforced via FCC regulations and is illegal, while streaming manipulation is frowned upon but largely unregulated.
In March of this year, Rolling Stone offered an up-to-date take on the same trend, this time offering an inside look into the “black market” of streaming manipulation. This piece — which unflinchingly describes efforts made to boost G-Eazy’s latest album — also includes some more contemporary efforts to crack down on streaming manipulation. Spotify has tried to penalize accounts engaging in streaming manipulation, and removed “tens of thousands of releases” from the platform in January 2021 for violation of this policy. Similarly, Sony mandates that its employees follow a “Code Of Best Practice,” which includes the “prohibit[ion of] stream manipulation by its employees or any third parties acting on the company’s behalf.” But, as Leight argues, it might not be that simple. Some digital marketing companies — third parties enlisted even by big labels to boost new releases — might engage in bad faith behavior, which is either buried for executives or willfully overlooked.
I was intrigued to read a quote from John Phelan, the director general of the International Confederation of Music Publishers, about why streaming manipulation was so bad for the industry back in 2019, that it is “leading to entirely distorted revenue streams and entirely distorted listening patterns.” If that were true, what would that mean for the music industry, particularly when global tours — usually a mainstay of an artist’s revenue — remain up in the air? Isn’t a label always nudging digital marketing to optimize clicks on their next big project? Aside from the “ick” factor of ceding our illusion of choice to technology, is it that different to follow a trend that AI accelerated versus one that people accelerated? Isn’t there ultimately someone in power pulling the lever, either way?
Phelan’s concerns reminded me of the whole GameStop/Reddit stock market thing, which is basically to say that it reminded me, once again, that All Of This Is Made Up. If Olivia Rodrigo’s album got big because one gajillion people actually listened to it or because twenty-five bots played her songs a couple million times in a row, either way, I (and probably you) first heard “driver’s license” because it swelled into enough of A Thing that SNL made a whole-ass skit about it. If Instagram shows me enough ads of the same pair of cute-enough knee-high boots I’ll click on the link and consider buying them. Wouldn’t you?
As a final caveat, the screenshot at the beginning of this piece is entirely unverified. The user of this site — which looks just like the kind of Blogspot I angstily used back in 2008 — may refer to themselves as “ent lawyer,” but their status i/r/t the bar or their actual familiarity with “the mouse house” is yet to be seen.
~Catch up on Dirt~
Dirt’s NFT crowdfunding campaign is totally sold out!
Chris Hayes on a trend of hyper-specific YouTube supercuts from beloved shows.
Ben Turner writes in praise of internet randomness. Is TikTok the new StumbleUpon?
Alex Marraccini becomes a professional Sims interior decorator in the game’s new expansion pack.
— A pilot for the Powerpuff Girls TV show for The CW will be reworked after allegedly being “too campy,” which this one-time Gossip Girl fan finds extremely hard to believe. The initial, extremely embarrassing script was co-written by Diablo Cody and has since allegedly leaked on Twitter — Lady Gaga’s iconic album Born This Way has turned 10, which has prompted multiple essay tributes and a reissue of the album with each of the record’s 14 songs covered by a different LGBTQ+ artist or musical group — Polygonhas compiled a list of the movies that are “really, seriously, finally” coming out this summer, and it includes Mainstream, Wrath of Man, Army of the Dead, Cruella, and In The Heights, among others — A win for accessibility: Spotify will start auto-transcribing podcasts, which will allow listeners to skip to certain parts (e.g., rather than listen to the epic preamble of My Favorite Murder episodes …) — A new video game (Survive The Century) is pushing players to change their approach to climate change — Devastating: Lil Uzi Vert has gotten rid of the $24 million diamond he had implanted in his forehead — Ariana Grande’s nightmarish “7 Rings” has reached 1 billion plays on YouTube
— This TikTok scratched my itch to figure out WTF is going on with the Ellie Kemper and “Veiled Prophet” of it all — Bianca Del Rio’s episode of In Bed With Joan (with Joan and Melissa Rivers) — a hot dance track (“Like This - Full Mix” by Pangaea) —the song from Ukraine’s representing band at this year’s Eurovision is a banger (“SHUM” by Go_A) — it took so much explaining for my German crush to understandthis TikTok — an extremely iconic TikTok remix (?) of the song “Suit & Tie” by Justin Timberlake — I finally got around to listening to the three part “200 Top Moments of Culture” spectacular on Matt Rogers/Bowen Yang’s podcast, Las Culturistas — By Eliza Levinson