The Story of How Tiny Desk Earned It’s Not so Tiny Fan Base

Whether or not you’re a fan of NPR (National Public Radio) chances are you’ve tuned in to their intimate Tiny Desk Concerts. Tiny Desk is a series of live concerts hosted by NPR Music, in their Washington, D.C. office. As the name suggests, the performances are all held behind an actual desk, more specifically behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen.

The Story of How Tiny Desk Earned Its Not So Tiny Fan Base 2
Image: NPR Music

Since the very first concert in 2008, the series has invited hundreds of artists across all genres to show off their skills with a live acoustic performance. The line up includes the industry’s biggest names, the latest up and coming stars, as well as little known alternative rock bands. The concerts are then streamed on YouTube for the whole world to hear, see, enjoy and share.

How It All Started

In 2008, Bob Boilen and a co-producer at NPR Music named Stephen Thompson decided to check out a live performance of a lesser-known singer-songwriter named Laura Gibson. “It was this awful bar – the speaker was pointing out the door, people were watching basketball games and cheering for their teams. [Laura] had a quiet voice, and we could barely hear her at all,” says Boilen. It was this frustration that led Boilen to the idea of Tiny Desk.

Only three weeks later and Boilen had already invited Gibson to NPR’s D.C. office where he had set up a makeshift stage out of a regular office desk. All he needed was a couple of microphones, a camera and voilà, they had their very first installment of Tiny Desk.

The Story of How Tiny Desk Earned Its Not so Tiny Fan Base 5
Image: NPR Music

All Songs Considered co-host Robin Hilton reflects on this impromptu performance saying, “We had no idea what we were doing, You’ll notice the shelves behind Laura are nearly bare. We’d just had those put in to hold all the CDs we get. You’ll also notice the video quality is pretty raw … Bob set up the cameras himself.” It was this rawness that reassured Boilen they had created something special.

“There was something that happened there I never would’ve imagined,” Boilen recalled when speaking about Gibson’s performance. “It was the intimacy, as I’ve come to understand it. There was nothing between you and the artist. There was no silly music video of someone running through a field. It wasn’t lip-synced. No reverb, studio niceties, just Laura’s voice coming through a beautiful microphone. Humble. It just worked.”

An Authentic Music Movement

The rare authenticity of Tiny Desk is exactly what catapulted the concert series to popularity. When separated from the typical stage equipment or studio effects, the artist is left with nothing but their passion, talent, and natural stage presence. Not only that but with such an intimate setting, those sitting around the desk or tuning in from home are invited to get to know the performer from a new, much more human perspective.

Nailing this authenticity is a challenge in itself. “As a Tiny Desk artist, all the technology is stripped away from the music,” says Tiny Desk sound producer, Josh Rogosin. “Your voice is un-amplified in a room as absolutely raw and naked and vulnerable as you can be.”

The Story of How Tiny Desk Earned Its Not So Tiny Fan Base 3
Image: NPR Music

This vulnerability might take some getting used to for those artists used to playing for sold-out stadiums. But capturing this adjustment is what Tiny Desk is all about. Since the first concert, NPR Music has invited over 550 performers to take a seat behind the Tiny Desk. Their YouTube channel has collected more than 80 million views, the latter of which is only growing.

Over time, the concerts have increased in variety, most recently opening the doors to the hip hop community. As the scope widened, Tiny Desk was able to welcome unexpected performers such as an auto-tune free T-Pain, which has since become the most popular Tiny Desk concert ever recorded.

Giving Artists a Voice

Although Boilen and his team are happy to bring in big-name stars such as Adele, The Jonas Brothers and the like, his favorite part of Tiny Desk is having the ability to give lesser-known acts a chance to show the world what they’ve got. “It’s the ones that come out of nowhere that are the most exciting,” he says.

The Story of How Tiny Desk Earned Its Not So Tiny Fan Base 1
Image: NPR Music

As of 2014, NPR introduced its first-ever Tiny Desk Contest inviting musicians to submit their work for the chance to perform a Tiny Desk concert. Since then, NPR has continued this annual tradition, each year receiving more than 6000 submissions.