When it comes to music, sometimes lesser known is better. As live music and concerts become more extravagant, yet less accessible than ever, NPR’s Tiny Desk is an oasis for small artists and music lovers alike. Started in 2008 by “All Songs Considered” host Bob Boilen, Tiny Desk is a triumph of sound engineering and music. Crowded as Boilen’s desk may be, nothing detracts from the artists’ sound. Those who visit Tiny Desk can bring nothing less than their best, and the intimacy of the venue encourages its occupants to take risks.
Traditionally, the word “concert” elicits visions of grandeur. Your favorite artist descending from the rafters as you peer from nosebleed seats, a special guest appearance or an unreleased song if you’re lucky. This level of production, however, comes at a cost. Seeing your favorite artist up close and personal is virtually impossible nowadays (unless you have a few thousand spare dollars laying around). After departing with such a grand sum, you may rationalize it by saying that you’re paying for the experience — the energy of the crowd, witty banter in between songs, a chance to go on stage and sing with an artist and sometimes a bit more. Larger concerts are a balancing act of grand production and making the audience feel a part of something exclusive. With all of that juggling, one has to wonder if the actual music takes a backseat to the spectacle of the performance.
For some artists, the cost of the experience comes with the assurance of quality — going to Rihanna’s first live performance in seven years or an exclusive Beyonce concert in Dubai comes with bragging rights beyond comprehension. In a sense, artists of this caliber transcend the need for a bond between artist and audience, though the same can’t be said for all “famous” artists. Largely in part due to social media platforms such as TikTok, artists can rise to fame with only a fraction of a song. They are catapulted into the realm of large, popular artists without the fan base to match, resulting in disjointed yet still expensive concerts. Small venue shows and web concert series are an effective intervention and remedy to the direction live music is taking, but what exactly makes them effective?
Genius’ “Verified” series on YouTube takes the signature approach of small venues, and creates a mix of popular or undiscovered artists and gives them a platform to unpack their music and musical process. Artists do this by going lyric by lyric in front of the company’s signature bright yellow background, but many of the Verified videos feel flat. With no one behind the camera but producers, few artists feel inclined to sing or rap, and instead recount their famous lines in a monotone that does nothing to entice viewers. In short, they’re skippable. The Verified series’ salvation is an artist’s personality, and at times, a laughably bad performance.
Other shows like Mahogany Sessions, BBC Radio 1’s Live Lounge and COLORS Show can be considered contemporaries of Tiny Desk, but still fall short of its lure. COLORS finds its footing in its unshakeable aesthetic. To say the least, the set is minimalistic. No two artists look the same, though all are undeniably fashionable. Each artist is set in front of a deeply saturated, monochromatic background that seems handpicked to match them and their music. COLORS is performance art, more than any concert, but fulfills the small venue mission of broadcasting new and diverse voices. Live Lounge primarily seems to humanize artists you already know and love. Acting as a break from the shackles of large concert venues, popular artists get to have fun. Many cover their favorite songs on a more stripped-down set and viewers feel as if they are getting a peek into a recording session rather than a concert. Mahogany Sessions, on the other hand, carved out a niche in folk and indie music but never really expanded further from there.
Tiny Desk is the best of both performance and music. In such a small venue, even big artists feel small and refreshingly human. The concerts are recorded all in one take and the impeccable sound engineering broadcasts the slip-ups and hitches in breath that viewers don’t usually get to hear. The recordings show everything. From the tuning of instruments to small moments of miscommunication, these sessions are more honest than those at a larger concert. Many admit their nervousness outright, and even more reveal it through nervous laughter or an offhand comment about the intimacy of the setting. Unlike many of its contemporaries, the audience at the desk is inseparable from the artists themselves. Again, a triumph of sound engineering, the audience’s hearty laughter (and less than stellar singing voices) ring out alongside the artist.
The D.C.-based Tiny Desk is unparalleled in its diversity, hosting popular and lesser-known artists, rappers, violinists, solo acts and choirs in every genre imaginable. Lesser-known artists are captivating, and more popular ones are pushed to tailor their discography to the demands of the desk. Unable to rely on grandeur, and still looking to enthrall, many take vocal risks or play their favorite songs. Furthermore, Tiny Desk introduced the Tiny Desk Contest in 2014 to promote new artists and give them an opportunity to occupy the desk.
As of 2021, there have been more than 900 Tiny Desk concerts. After a short hiatus following the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, NPR seamlessly shifted gears with the introduction of home concerts. The studio-level sound quality never ceased, and Tiny Desk was able to maintain the intimate feel of a small venue with an artist’s living room or garage. Despite all this, their return to Boilen’s desk was much awaited.
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