How NPR's 'Tiny Desk' became a coveted stage for artists big and small

NPR/Eric Lee

When the NPR Tiny Desk series started in 2008, social media was still in its infancy. Back then there was hope that platforms like Twitter and Facebook would connect people in new and meaningful ways. That isn't quite what happened with social media, but it did with the Tiny Desk series. Formed out of the mind of creative director Bob Boilen, nearly 1,000 performances have taken place at NPR's Washington D.C. offices. For Boilen, it was a way to create an intimate performance that could be shared with fans around the world via the internet.

As the story goes, it was during a performance by singer Laura Gibson at South by Southwest in 2008 when Boilen came up with the idea. He was in attendance with NPR staff member Stephen Thompson, and the two complained about how they could hardly hear the music. Thompson joked that Gibson, who was touring with the Decemberists, should just come to do a show in their office. For Boilen, a lightbulb went off.

The first concert came together, using Boilen’s desk as a set. (As an intrepid Vice reporter once pointed out, the desk isn’t actually tiny. It’s pretty average-sized.) Boilen then edited together the three songs Gibson performed into a short video.

“The reaction back then to that concert was very surprising,” he explained to Mic over the phone. “What I got out of the comments was the intimacy, the directness between you and the singer, with no frills and crazy lights or studio reverb or any of that stuff. Something that was different than what people would normally see on the internet,” Boilen explained.

After that, they did a second one. And a third. And they haven’t stopped since.

“Every Tiny Desk that you see is a product of somebody putting 110% of their passion,” Sidney Madden, a producer on the show, told Mic. Madden started at the NPR Music desk in 2017 and eventually began producing for the Tiny Desk series.

Boilen always gets the final say on who comes to perform at his desk, but he's sure not to be limited by his own tastes.

“Somebody on staff has to be passionate about the artist or they're not coming here,” Boilen said. “We don't go down that rabbit hole of ‘Oh that would be really big, we should do that.’ I don't want that. It doesn't mean we can't do somebody big — we brought in Taylor Swift. A couple of people on our staff are passionate about Taylor Swift. And it was wonderful. But that's the rule. We're not going to bring in anybody who we don't care about.”

That attitude has paid off. As the years passed, Tiny Desk became a much sought after performance for artists. Acts like Mac Miller, Tyler, the Creator, Megan Thee Stallion, and more have all graced the "stage." One of the most famous Tiny Desk concerts, T-Pain’s stripped-down 2014 set, introduced the series to the masses, spawning months of online chatter thanks to the revelation that, sans auto-tune, T-Pain could really sing.

The mechanics of the performances are a key part of both their appeal and how artists are selected. By virtue of their location — inside NPR’s offices — performers need to be prepared to deliver absolutely bare-bones sets. Madden explains how this can often result in new audiences discovering musicians who they might not otherwise have engaged with.

“Having that live band aspect, it was like a whole new Megan,” she said, describing Megan Thee Stallion’s recent appearance. “I saw people shazaming and Googling her in the moment.”

For plenty of younger listeners, the idea of looking up Megan Thee Stallion might seem absurd, but one must remember NPR’s reach extends far beyond the confines of in-the-know young folks. “Even when you think your music taste is indicative of what’s buzzing right now, there are always new audiences to discover,” Madden says.

The staff passion requirement creates a healthy mix of artists that appear at the desk. One day it will be Megan Thee Stallion performing, and the next, it will be the under-the-radar soul trio Moonchild.

“I just kind of like went down the rabbit hole and watched a bunch of them in a row,” Andris Mattson, of Moonchild, told Mic in a phone call. For the L.A. based band, the opportunity to perform on the Tiny Desk was “surreal.” As long-time fans of the show, all three members of the group have kept up with the series for years.

The series provides the type of springboard for smaller acts that late night television once did. The format is is inviting on a democratic level. The intimacy of the performances has a way of honing in on the music. For under-the-radar bands like Moonchild, it's a rare opportunity.

“It just feels really personal,” Moonchild’s Amber Navran said. “The music kind of takes a slightly different form. I think it's really cool to hear artists and vocalists ... do their thing in such an intimate space.”

Madden, who produced their appearance, says that the pared-down performances provide an opportunity for improvisation and ingenuity. “It sparks new ideas of how to convey their art in different ways. And it turns into a jam session a lot of the time.”

iLe, whose album Almadura is nominated for a Grammy, came to perform her Tiny Desk directly after a flight from Puerto Rico. It was during the #RickyRenuncia protests, which called for Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's resignation. iLe was heavily involved, and on the day of her performance, the largest protest yet — involving over one million people — had just begun. “We all — all of the musicians and I — had the same energy: very excited about participating in the Tiny Desk but, at the same time, we had a strange feeling that we didn't want to leave the island,” iLe told Mic over the phone.

But ultimately, she was grateful to be at Bob Boilen’s desk in Washington D.C., where she was able to not only perform her album in a new way but also speak about what was happening in Puerto Rico. “It was a fun risk to take, figuring out a way for me to appreciate every sound of every instrument but in a more subtle way,” iLe says.

It's that ingenuity — in addition to the intimacy and the eclectic mix of artists — that has created a show that occupies the most soothing corner of the internet. When new Tiny Desk videos are released, it's like a neutral wave washed across social feeds. As the internet — and the world — has become increasingly chaotic and frenetic, there's a purity to videos like NPR's Tiny Desk concerts. “That's really Bob's desk. Those shelves behind his desk are really that frickin messy and cluttered," Madden explains.

It would seem that, in 2019, very few things are done for the love of it. And NPR's quietly ascendant video series is just the thing to remind you what that looks like. From the musicians, to the audience members — real NPR staffers passing through the office — NPR's Tiny Desk provides real intimacy in a feed that feels increasingly contrived.