In 2008, NPR’s All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and NPR music editor Stephen Thompson came back from a show frustrated that they couldn’t hear the concert over the noisy crowd. Thompson then joked that the musician should have just performed at Boilen’s desk at the NPR Music office in Washington D.C. Just a month later, Boilen arranged for the singer, Laura Gibson, to perform at his desk. Thus, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts was created.
Tiny Desk Concerts is a video series consisting of live concerts at Bob Boilen’s desk. Since its creation in 2008, more than 800 artists have performed on the show spanning different levels of fame and musica; genres, amassing more than two billion views on Youtube. The intent of Tiny Desk is to remove the artificial elements of music performance while igniting the raw authenticity of a wide variety of genres.
However, with the series' growing fame and popularity, it seems to be putting less emphasis on giving smaller artists exposure. Most notably, when Bob Boilen first started Tiny Desk, he had a rule that each artist could only perform on the show once. But, over the past few years, the show has had several repeated performers. Indie rock artist Julien Baker has performed on Tiny Desk three times: once in 2016, again in 2018, and then again as a part of boygenius in 2019. Singer–songwriter Sharon Van Etten was invited to perform in 2019 after already performing in 2010, while rock band Wilco performed in 2011 and 2016.
Just in the past month, two hugely popular musicians, Taylor Swift and the Jonas Brothers, were invited to perform at Tiny Desk. Although the three most viewed Tiny Desk concerts are from more established artists, specifically Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals, Mac Miller, and T–Pain, lesser–known artists also have the potential to generate a lot of views. Hobo Johnson and The Lovemakers' Tiny Desk garnered 4.7 million views since its release a year ago. Furthermore, even established artists such as Anderson .Paak and Adele performed at Tiny Desk before their careers really took off.
One of Tiny Desk’s initiatives to give smaller artists exposure is their annual Tiny Desk Contest, where unsigned musicians across the country can submit a video of them performing an original song at a desk. According to the contest website, the Tiny Desk Contest was created in 2014 “with the humble goal of discovering new music.” In 2019, the contest received over 6000 entries. When selected, the winner gets to play at the Tiny Desk and tour the country with NPR Music. In 2017, New Orleans band Tank And The Bangas won the concert, and over the past two years, their Tiny Desk video has garnered almost nine million views on YouTube. NPR Music also recently launched the Tiny Desk Fest, where fans can buy tickets to view the taping of a Tiny Desk inside the NPR Music office.
With Tiny Desk’s increased fan base, the series should be used to promote smaller artists who otherwise wouldn’t get much of a chance to showcase their talents on a platform enjoyed by a wide audience with a variety of music tastes. Although the authenticity that Tiny Desk concerts aim to achieve shouldn’t just be limited to performances by lesser–known artists, the repetition of performances by famous artists makes the space more exclusive. Especially with the democratization of publishing and posting music that we see today, there are so many talented musicians struggling to get real exposure. Tiny Desk is a rare online space that tries to promote musical authenticity. It risks losing that quality if it becomes dominated by artists or groups who have already achieved massive fame.