'NPR is cool!' How Tiny Desk Concerts became a pop culture phenomenon

(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)
(AP Illustration/Peter Hamlin)

NEW YORK (AP) — As DJ Mannie Fresh’s trademark “ladies and gentlemen” catchphrase ricocheted throughout the office, a giddy Juvenile, draped in white with his signature bandana, playfully swayed back and forth to the beat of his musicians. It wasn’t surprising that the native of New Orleans — a city known for brass bands and live music — felt at home for his Tiny Desk Concert. What is remarkable? Just weeks prior, the legendary rapper had been unaware of the popular, stripped-down, live music series.

An April social media suggestion that he perform for the National Public Radio series — amplified by his “Wtf is a tiny desk” reply – sent social media into a frenzy. Details were ironed out within days, resulting in one of 2023’s most notable live performances just two months later.

“I don’t know if there’s a Tiny Desk award or something like that — maybe I would be the one to get it,” laughed Juvenile, referencing the excitement around his performance that's drawn nearly 7 million views. “I’ve been getting so much love,” said the 48-year-old “Back That Azz Up” artist.

NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series, which began almost 15 years ago as a niche online platform mainly highlighting rock and folk musicians, has established itself as one of music’s premiere platforms. It now includes performers from across genres, providing countless pop culture moments.

Becky G says her October appearance was a defining moment.

“It was such a milestone …some people want to forget certain things in their life so badly,” said the 26-year-old Latina star, who ended her predominately Spanish-language set with “Shower,” a song released nearly a decade ago. “Maybe we’re supposed to remember them, to remember how far we’ve come.”

That sentiment can be applied to the Tiny Desk Concert series itself, which began after its creators attended a performance where an artist was not heard.

THE GENESIS

Folk artist Laura Gibson felt deflated after her 2008 South by Southwest show in Austin, Texas. The Thirsty Nickel bar allowed noisy 6th Street revelers who didn’t purchase tickets to enter, and they had no interest in listening to the soft-spoken artist.

“Mid-set, I was like, ’Why did I drive all the way down to Texas ... What am I doing with my life?” Gibson remembered. “I felt like ‘I really just want to go hide somewhere and cry.’”

Bob Boilen, director of NPR’s flagship program “All Things Considered,” and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson were in attendance. Wanting to provide Gibson with an environment they felt she deserved, they invited her to play at their Washington, D.C., headquarters. Her performance was filmed and uploaded to NPR’s website. “Stephen and I stand up at the desk, and we tell that story and we say: ‘This might be the start of something. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.’ We didn’t know,” said Boilen, who retired in October after 35 years at NPR. He started there in 1988 as a production assistant and eventually directed “All Things Considered” for nearly two decades.

Despite positive feedback on the NPR Music blog, creating a series wasn’t a thought. But weeks later, indie rock-folk musician Vic Chesnutt was in town, so they invited him to play. After his set, Boilen and Thompson realized they were onto something special.

“People strategize and plot things out,” said Boilen, a musician himself who co-founded the new-wave band Tiny Desk Unit in 1979. “Sometimes it’s just straight inspiration that makes something great, and not a lot of planning.”

THE PROCESS

Tiny Desk producers sort through hundreds of weekly pitch emails regarding artists of all genres, famous and unknown, international and domestic, while also monitoring social media. (Remember Juvenile?) Purely promotional, artists aren’t compensated for performance or travel.

The rules are simple: Equipment that amplifies sound or voice, like vocal monitors or Auto-Tune, aren’t allowed. Musicians collaborate with producers on the setlist, and all performers — no matter how many — should fit behind what was Boilen’s functioning desk.

“It is interesting, the whole question of how much you can take away from something and it still be worth listening to,” said Josephine Wiggs of the early 90s alternative rock band “The Breeders,” who performed in 2018. “The thing that I do and value and spend my time on is one of the first things that gets taken away because I play loud, electric bass guitar ... it catches in my throat a little.”

With more than 1,100 tapings, Tiny Desk has drawn heavy comparisons to MTV’s groundbreaking “Unplugged” series of the ’90s, but there’s one major difference: It’s a true office space — not a recording studio or soundstage. There’s a run-through for the production team, and performances — played to NPR staff — average 20 minutes, partially guided by online engagement statistics.

THE CHANGE

Boilen felt an increase in intrigue when renowned entertainer Tom Jones expressed interest in performing in 2009. The concerts remained niche, but five years later, it exploded after then-producer Frannie Kelley booked T-Pain – the chart-topping rapper-singer — who delivered one of Tiny Desk’s memorable performances by shedding his Auto-Tune sound.

“It was the first time we’d ever gone viral,” said series producer Bobby Carter, who began his two-decade NPR career as an intern. “It was an initial shock, like, ‘Wow, NPR’s cool!’ which was very new for us.”

It wasn’t only the performance that resonated, but that Tiny Desk included a rapper. In the early days, the Tiny Desk team was comprised of a handful of dedicated staffers, with all pitches approved by Boilen — and the artists booked reflected their musical preferences.

“Even when I started at NPR … it was sort of associated with like highbrow (content), didn’t scream anything for a Black kid from the inner city… there were just so many voids when it comes to diversity,” explained Carter, who also said a large portion of the Tiny Desk online audience is unaware of the NPR association — or NPR. “There’s a legacy (at NPR) that didn’t always necessarily scream this is for young people or this is for Black people or people from Latin American countries … that’s part of the reason why I stepped up.”

Carter says an internal “groundswell” formed as employees noticed culture gaps within NPR Music, as hip-hop, R&B, mainstream pop and Latin music weren’t represented. Noting he’s always had a great relationship with Boilen, he and others eventually gained Boilen’s trust, allowing for experimentation as with T-Pain.

“To be able to use that global platform … with an audience that comes from where I come from, that looks like what I look like, with peers who are singing with me, playing with me, that come from similar places, I think was everything,” said Becky G.

THE CHALLENGE

The central focal point of the concert series remains providing exposure to rising artists. But Tiny Desk’s audience now also anticipates superstars. Bono, Taylor Swift, Usher, Adele, BTS, Alicia Keys and others have graced the desk. But what do superstar singers have to gain?

Grammy-winning rapper 2 Chainz was interested in performing because of “how they are connecting with the culture, and with music and with live performing.” The rapper, who hosts his own live music series on Prime Video, added “you can just tell that they get it.”

The “It’s a Vibe” emcee performed at his nail studio in 2021 as NPR shifted to virtual sets, temporarily re-branded as “Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts” during the coronavirus pandemic. Social gathering was prohibited across much of the country and many parts of the world. Artists filmed themselves, and Tiny Desk staff assisted with post-production.

That kind of forward-thinking helped Tiny Desk distance itself from the competition. A combination of timing — the online live music video landscape was wide open during its infancy — expert musical curation, and even the recognizable backdrop of cluttered shelves helped attract its audience. But Boilen believes the primary reason mainstream artists participate is the challenge of performing with restriction. All musicians are equal at the Tiny Desk, regardless of records sold or Grammys won.

“People in the room are hearing that voice naked,” said Boilen, citing the intimacy of the performances. “I think that’s why artists love it, although it’s nerve-wracking. But it’s also why audiences love it: They get to see their favorite people doing things in ways they had never seen them do it.”

THE DISCOVERY

A relatively unknown artist can receive career-changing exposure after an appearance. In a music-streaming era powered by algorithms, the Tiny Desk barometer is simple — the ear test.

“It can be really hard to discover music and not feel like somehow an algorithm is just handing you something,” said Gibson, the inaugural performer. “What’s lovely about the Tiny Desk is there’s a staff of people that just love music and are excited about sharing.”

The series has introduced international musicians and spotlights genres like classical and jazz. Homage is also paid to artists who reached their heyday before many of the online audience members were born.

Scarface trended on social media for two consecutive days after his December performance, as younger viewers posted that they were unaware of the iconic Houston emcee. Many also had no idea that his guest, producer Mike Dean — most associated with some of Ye’s (Kanye West) biggest hits — was an early collaborator of the Geto Boys star, cutting his teeth with the pioneering southern label, Rap-A-Lot.

Kelley Deal of the Breeders said the staff's knack for finding talented artists assists her band in giving musicians an opportunity to open for them.

“It’s almost like it’s a recommendation,” explained Deal. “Somebody has done the vetting for me and found that whatever this band is … they are interesting enough to check out.”

THE EFFECT

Gaelynn Lea, a folk violinist who won 2016’s Tiny Desk Contest, a competition for unsigned artists launched two years prior, never performed internationally — or outside her state.

“Everything I was doing was based in Minnesota … the Tiny Desk Concert opened me up to a much, much wider audience,” said Lea. She’s since performed in England and Europe, even opening for The Decemberists and Wilco. More significantly, it highlighted her activism.

“When I was starting out, most of the places I played, they had to lift my wheelchair on to the stage … or sometimes I couldn’t get into the bathroom,” said Lea, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease. She co-founded Ranch Recording Artists and Music Professionals with Disabilities which promotes inclusion and accessibility. “If we really want to honor and uplift diversity, we have to make sure that the places that people gather to watch art and music are actually accessible.”

For rising artists like Amaarae, a Tiny Desk Concert can boost confidence.

“It means that I’m at a point where people care enough to even want something like that from me,” said the eclectic Ghanaian American Afropop singer. “I’m manifesting and making my visions come to fruition.”

But even a legend like Juvenile, one of the biggest artists of the early 2000s, says he experienced a resurgence.

“We (received) that crazy reaction … a lot of great things, a lot of shows, a lot of phone calls,” he said. “It just makes me feel real good inside, especially coming out here and letting the fans know I’m still out here.”

THE FUTURE

Cater has picked up many of the leadership responsibilities, but he says don’t expect major changes to what was built under Boilen.

“The things that keep me up at night is how do we maintain that while filling the demand?” revealed Carter, whose personal wish list includes Sade, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Anita Baker. “(There’s) a lot of demand from outside sources to change it, to make it bigger … a lot of the challenge is to keep it tiny, keep it intimate, when there’s so much temptation.”

Boilen retired, saying he believes in-person office camaraderie at NPR disappeared with post-covid remote work, no longer making the experience fun. His current focus is photography, his solo music and the upcoming 20th album from his band, Danger Painters. He’s still producing Tiny Desk acts he booked before stepping away.

“I hope the series never just goes to getting the big name ... I don’t care about that,” said the 70-year-old. “We’re not making a difference in Taylor Swift’s life … but if we can turn people on to someone they’ve never heard, that’s always been – in my 35 years at NPR – that has totally been my goal.”

For musicians like Lea, it’s a mission accomplished.

“I can honestly say that I’ve done the same concert series as a lot of my favorite bands … It definitely serves a different purpose for Bono than it does for me, but it’s cool for both of us,” she said. “Aside from meeting my husband, the Tiny Desk is probably the most pivotal moment in my life.”

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Leslie Ambriz and Maria Sherman, both in Los Angeles, contributed to this story.


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