On April 15, culture publication Paste posted a news story about a new music video from popular indie-folk guitarist William Tyler. Everything about the post was business as usual for a music publication of its kind: There was a link to the video, a quote from Tyler and a list of his upcoming tour dates. Well, everything except one thing: Paste credited the source of the official premiere to the Reddit community r/indieheads — not another music site like Stereogum or The FADER. And in the middle of the article, there was a plug for Tyler’s forthcoming AMA (short for “Ask Me Anything”), a kind of public Q&A session popular across Reddit, happening on r/indieheads as well.
This was by no means the first time that the indie music forum with over 700,000 subscribers had been referenced by a major music publication. Stereogum has looked to the community as a news source for years, and SPIN — which, like Stereogum, is owned by Billboard parent company Valence Media — recently reported on a thread from r/indieheads that shared leaked information about James Blake’s then-unannounced 2019 album. Yet the Paste article was a sign of just how newsworthy the daily doings of the subreddit have become — and just how much influence the community of nonprofessional music fans has amassed.
r/indieheads is hard to define. In the most basic terms, it’s a message board where people from all over the world discuss indie music of the rock, pop, punk, folk and even experimental hip-hop and R&B variety. But it’s also a place where anonymous users share in-depth writing to prompt thoughtful discussion, vote in comprehensive polls and ask their favorite artists questions about everything from production techniques to how much weed they smoked in the 90s.
In that sense, r/indieheads, as it has grown since its 2013 creation, borrows elements from both traditional music forums like I Love Music or Hipinion (places for discovery and discussion) and music blogs like Fluxblog and GoldFlakePaint (websites where writers publish music criticism and sometimes artist interviews). But it’s also preserved these sites’ culture and core functions as dominant social networks have redrawn the landscape for digital music communities and music writing. “Social media has pushed pretty much everyone towards feeds and away from personal sites and independent media,” says Matthew Perpetua, who founded Fluxblog, the first mp3 blog, in 2002. “So blogs in general died off, leaving only the lifers and the loyalists.”
At the same time, as countless music and entertainment publications have ceased operations or seen their staffs dwindle, many of those that are still active have steered their coverage away from underground artists and discovery for discovery’s sake. “All web publications can see what the audience for any given post is, and that’s been a problem for coverage of generally unpopular niche art topics,” adds Perpetua, a former Rolling Stone editor who most recently served as the director of quizzes and games at BuzzFeed for six years. “All arts publications now have to chase easy traffic just to survive, and logically that mostly means writing about celebrities, familiar things, viral hits and controversies.”
Enter r/indieheads, which offers both music obsessives and even casual listeners an opportunity to discover music via other humans without an agenda. And while its diligent discussions, fan-run Q&As and lengthy comment threads aren’t a substitute for professional criticism and reporting, the relatively chill, self-governing community of r/indieheads — not to mention its tranquil beige aesthetic — offers an alternative to the chaos of Twitter or the brash elitism that plagued many indie forums of the 2000s.
“There’s so much music being released all the time that on Twitter or even larger blogs, you feel like you’re getting inundated with hot takes and combative discussion,” AJ Moser says, who’s been browsing r/indieheads since its creation.
Discussion on r/indieheads, on the other hand, is more structured: A text box on the right side of the home page titled “Weekly Schedule” organizes discussion topics such as “Top Ten Tuesday” (in which users share their rankings of an artist’s songs) and “New Music Friday” (about new releases) by their corresponding week days. Any new song that’s posted must have the word [FRESH], stylized as such, in its title in order for it to appear on the board. An extensive rule guide also prohibits posting memes and off-topic links and directs recurring conversations to already-established threads. Yet this kind of regulation, its users say, feels the opposite of restrictive. Says Moser, “The subreddit feels like a calmer place to me, with the freedom to sort through what’s new and what might interest me.”
It also contributes to a healthier, more welcoming culture of conversation. Consider this 2009 Urban Dictionary definition of Music Banter, one of the foremost indie message boards of the 2000s and early 2010s: “A forum filled with semi-pretentious peeps who know way more about music then you.” Or consider the 4chan music community /mu/, which, like most of the pages on the unmoderated 4chan, is notoriously hostile to newcomers and open to rampant hate speech.
Each subreddit on Reddit, however, has its own individual team of volunteer moderators who set and enforce guidelines, making it easier for these forums to weed out trolls. All participants in r/indieheads — which currently has 12 moderators, all between the ages of 22 and 29 — post knowing they could be banned for racist, sexist, or other derogatory remarks. That’s part of what inspired 22-year-old student Matty Monroe to become an r/indieheads mod a few years back.
“No one was trying to posture and think they were cooler than they actually were,” he says. “I feel like that was a consistent problem with a multitude of forums that I used to be on before I joined r/indieheads, where everyone was trying to one-up one another in some shape or form, taking a certain joke too far and making a take hotter than the last one.”
All that makes r/indieheads particularly appealing to female fans of indie music, who often find other spaces unwelcoming if not outright hostile. “I know it can be intimidating entering a discussion forum and believing you don’t know enough to participate,” says 26-year-old Sara Loebig, who’s been on a moderator on r/indieheads for about a year. “r/indieheads is open to all people of all skill levels — especially those in need of a recommendation or two.”
For Abby Carpenter, who’s been browsing for about a year and also runs a Facebook group dedicated to punk stalwart Jeff Rosenstock, the friendly nature is one of its main draws. “r/indieheads is a place where you can go without fear of being bullied for what music you like, and that is my favorite part,” she says.
The one thing that’s not moderated, however, is the definition indie. (The rules only list what’s discouraged — “mainstream rock/metal, mainstream pop, mainstream hip hop/R&B, mainstream electronic & edm” — but even that comes with a “generally” caveat.) That decision, along with its tolerant atmosphere and rising profile, means that r/indieheads is helping expand the boundaries of what constitutes “indie,” a label that’s long been shaped by sexism, racism, rockism and other narrow perspectives that moderators now actively rally against.
“There’s definitely a lot of people out there who have an outdated sense of what indie is nowadays, or have a preconceived notion that indie is just white dudes with guitars,” Monroe says. “And we really want to help change that.”
* * *
Jack Tiggleman created r/indieheads in late 2013, when he was just 17 years old. Back then, there were numerous subreddits geared toward specific styles of music, and a couple of subs that attempted to cover all genres. But to Tiggleman, none of them were as focused and thriving as r/hiphopheads, perhaps r/indieheads’ closest living predecessor despite focusing on an entirely different genre.
“The two ‘indie’ subreddits on reddit at that time, r/indie and r/indie_rock, were really lackluster and pretty much only posted the same old songs over and over again without a lot of discussion,” Tiggleman remembers. “The r/hiphopheads community, however, was really cool. They had a ton of discussion and hype around new releases, and I was always discovering new artists. So I spent a lot of time on there, even though I didn’t quite enjoy hip-hop as much as indie.”
On Christmas Eve of 2013, someone posted in there about starting a subreddit for indie music, citing the lack of non-hip-hop communities that weren’t “either completely vile or pretty low on the discussion front.” Within that thread, Tiggleman saw people complaining about the “dickery” of /mu/, the slow pace of r/LetsTalkMusic, and the elitism of r/music, and he decided to just go for it and create r/indieheads. Within 24 hours, there were 1,000 subscribers.
“I had no idea it would ever become this huge, though,” he says. “And it’s still weird to think sometimes that I started a community that now has over 600,000 subscribers.”
Tiggleman, now 22, says he didn’t really know what he was doing when he started it — he remembers putting out a call for mods and added literally whoever responded. None of those people lasted long, so he began reaching out to people who were active in the sub to bring them onto his team.
“I call it a ‘community’ rather than a ‘subreddit’,” Tiggleman says. “Because it seems so weird to classify this in the same group as, like, r/funny, r/askreddit, and I hate even sharing one sliver of a similarity with r/The_Donald… I have always just wanted a super-inclusive place where everyone feels like they can talk about music that they love without being attacked for who they are or what their favorite Radiohead album is.”
During a typical scroll through r/indieheads, you’ll find a mix of posts celebrating new releases from mainstays like Vampire Weekend and Tame Impala — the kinds of bands that introduce most people to the genre at large — as well as posts about left-of-center artists that the community reacts to with similar enthusiasm.
But the posts that inspire the most activity, the mods say, are the AMAs. Although they’re not exclusive to Reddit, these Q&A sessions typically allow anyone with a Reddit account to answer questions from anonymous users for a particular amount of time. They’re practically a defining feature of the site, and sometimes put Reddit in the headlines: Obama famously participated in an AMA back in 2012. “I think AMAs are definitely what pushed us from becoming a niche little subreddit to one of the biggest places to discuss independent music on the internet,” Tiggleman says.
Tiggleman started reaching out to artists once the sub hit 15,000 subscribers, and after getting turned down countless times by PR people who didn’t understand r/indieheads, psych-folk songwriter Ryley Walker eventually agreed to be their inaugural guest in April 2015. Their next guest was Mac DeMarco, and Tiggleman says that’s “what really put us on the map.”
Since then, r/indieheads has hosted over 200 AMAs with artists as big as Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes and Oneohtrix Point Never, and they’re often covered by music publications as if they were any other newsmaking interview from a journalistic outlet. Monroe, who coordinates these Q&As, says he now books four or five in a single week. “There’s definitely been some wild gets we’ve had over the years,” he says. “As I’m still in complete shock we got Mount Eerie, MGMT, and the Voidz within, like, a month’s span.”
Yet despite the way r/indieheads is helping connecting fans with their favorite artists, Monroe still considers the community more of a forum than anything else. And really, for all its unique characteristics, r/indieheads still does what every internet community has been trying to do since the beginning of the internet: connect like-minded people and remind us that, no matter how obscure your interests may seem, you’re not alone. All you have to do is look to the wide-ranging General and Daily discussion threads, which user James Li calls “the lifeblood of the sub.”
“It’s a generous mixture of what are essentially shared diary excerpts, music recommendations, shitposts and frank discussions about mental health,” says Li, who’s been browsing since 2015. “The level of discussion the GDs provide without the usual trappings of social media is actually what helped me permanently deactivate Facebook last year.”
Through his involvement with the sub, he met a couple fellow musicians from around the world and ended up collaborating together on an EP. He speaks glowingly about the people he’s gotten to know through r/indieheads, even noting that he feels closer to some of his r/indieheads friends than he does to many of his offline friends.
“The shared affinity for indie music skews towards a community of generally open-minded, empathetic and introspective people,” he says. “Vulnerability and generosity are the norm. A deep love for music is still what binds this all together, but there is a true richness in the community behind the new albums and headlines.”