Screenshot of Jupiter & Okwess performing a Tiny Desk concert

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts Are a Really Big Deal

Musicians who take part in these bite-sized performances trade the wild stage for the calm screen.
November 19, 2021
10 mins read

There’s something humbling about watching a big-name artist perform music from a cramped living room. During Ed Sheeran’s appearance on “Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts” on YouTube, the artist mumbles, “I’ve always wanted to do one of these,” while tuning his guitar for the last song of his set. Billboard described Sheeran’s cozy performance as a “lively and soulful set, at times rocking out with his acoustic guitar and other times just passionately singing into his microphone.” Sheeran’s show was added to the roster of famous guests who joined the “Tiny Desk Concerts” cohort, as part of an ongoing series of intimate performances.

The “Tiny Desk Concerts” are videos created by NPR Music. From their headquarters in Washington, D.C., each Tiny Desk concert is filmed behind the desk of Bob Boilen, who first formed the idea for the unconventional music series. By taking musicians away from the stage and shoving them behind an office desk, the Tiny Desk concert series offers a reimagination of “live” music. Boilen initially wanted to make music videos that brought the concert experience to a screen near you; he didn’t realize how many people were excited to get behind his tiny desk showcases.

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Since the first Tiny Desk concert in 2008, its breakout onto the music scene has developed into a growing phenomenon. With a cult following and millions of views on the NPR Music YouTube channel, “Tiny Desk Concerts” has hosted every kind of artist, big and small. From household names such as the Jonas Brothers to more niche musicians like Elisapie, NPR is mindful of the genres they support. This music outlet aims to cover artists that fit all tastes, rather than limiting themselves to a singular type.

As stated in the Los Angeles Times, the Tiny Desk concert is “a coveted platform for artists gunning for a career in music and a creative playground for those who already have one.” The opportunity to pile in an office for the love of music makes the “Tiny Desk Concerts” series hard to compare to. By uplifting famous voices and promoting new ones, NPR has cracked the code on sharing the intimacy of music beyond the stage’s barricades.

But what makes these videos — which, at the end of the day, are just concert recordings of the digital age — so special to fans all over?

While the large production of live performances is reduced for a Tiny Desk concert, the videos do not compromise on sound. Instead, the so-called “coffeehouse vibe” of “Tiny Desk Concerts” is an exciting challenge of how to share music with a digital audience. Musicians are tasked with stripping down their songs to fit the confines of the small space, without letting go of the authentic sound that brought them to the desk in the first place.

Surprisingly, performing on the “Tiny Desk Concerts” series is also stress-inducing for the artists involved. In a video interview with Boilen’s titled “Favorite Tiny Desk Concert,” the founder revealed “how nervous performers would be to play [here].” Even if the desk itself is not intimidating, it is the emotional significance of playing music in such a setting that raises the stakes of the performance. Artists are more vulnerable behind a simple desk, where verses cannot hide among the glitz and glamor of live productions.

Reflecting on the filming process of “Tiny Desk Concerts,” Vox stated, “This vulnerability of these artists, and the fact they’re playing in an office in the middle of the day instead of in a beer-soaked club, brings us closer to the stark humanity in music.” The performance boils down to the artist, the music and you, stripping away all the bells and whistles that have become synonymous with live music.

The preparations that make “Tiny Desk Concerts” happen prove to be well worth the emotional risk. When you search “NPR Tiny Desk Concerts” on YouTube, a slew of notable names shoot to the top of the screen: Alicia Keys, Anderson .Paak and Mac Miller are just a handful of the massive appearances that NPR hosts. Highlighting famous voices brings millions of views to Boilen’s desk, while also carving out a space for people to watch their favorite artists push the boundaries of their creativity. NPR Music’s YouTube channel is a rare gem where you can watch Adele sing her hit “Someone Like You” in front of a cluttered bookshelf or Lizzo belt “Truth Hurts” from an office chair. These famous musicians have to select a handful of their favorite tracks to play with the limited equipment that can fit behind the desk.

NPR also uses their platform to showcase artists whose names are new to the spotlight. Bands such as Muzz get to showcase their musical chops in their performance: Playing a selection of songs for the NPR Music audience is a dual promotion of their fresh band and new album. Though it’s a nice comfort to see fan-favorite artists among the bookcases, it’s just as impactful to see unfamiliar musicians grace the office.

The Canadian artist Elisapie sings her Inuktitut lyrics behind the tiny desk, attracting a whole new fanbase for her evocative songs. As one comment on Elisapie’s “Tiny Desk Concerts” appearance stated, “Just stunning the diversity of talent NPR brings to the Tiny Desk day in and day out.” NPR’s commitment to diverse and innovative voices is shown through the “Tiny Desk Concerts” artists. Even if these musicians are familiar to an enthusiastic few, the series format allows their names to spread on a worldwide scale.

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In terms of accessibility, “Tiny Desk Concerts” make live music attainable to audience members who don’t have the means to see these kinds of performances in person. At the same time, the artists find fans in unlikely places. Paramore’s Hayley Williams praises this authenticity of the series in her Tiny Desk concert: “You guys have a really cool job, you get to just listen to stories all the time … it’s an honor to be here, and tell you ours.”

More than your average music recording, “Tiny Desk Concerts” consistently churn out new videos to give old and new fans content to devour. In the comments of Ed Sheeran’s video on “Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts,” fans are quick to catch recurring faces: “To my loyal Tiny Desk fans. The background singers is the same couple that accompanied Alicia Keys on her awesome performance!!” The “Tiny Desk Concerts” fanbase has blossomed into a community of music aficionados who carry the spirit with them, no matter the platform.

One particular Twitter account became a thriving hub for Harry Styles fans after the debut of his Tiny Desk concert. Reposting a clip of Styles saying “It’s Tuesday” during his performance has garnered over 20,000 followers who are simply entertained by the statement each week, proving that the mundane moments that emerge from the Tiny Desk scene can lead to much more camaraderie than one would expect.

Since the current state of the world has hindered live entertainment, it’s more important than ever to figure out how to adapt and move forward in creative ways. Locking in those “temporary fixes” for the long term does not come easy; however, the nature of the “Tiny Desk Concerts” format is adaptable to the present conditions.

When live music came to a halt, so did live performances from Boilen’s desk. The key is that the “Tiny Desk Concerts” series brought musicians to the web long before it became a necessity for surviving the entertainment industry. The “Tiny Desk Concerts” series quickly switched to the “Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts” format, where artists perform from the comfort of their own spaces. The new tagline to “Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts” reassures the audience through these changes with the statement, “It’s the same spirit — stripped-down sets, an intimate setting — just a different space.” Regardless of where the musicians are performing from, NPR Music still satisfies the desire for live music at home.

With countless performances to choose from, and new ones posted week after week, the fans keep coming back to NPR Music for more. Viewers from all over the world can gain access to hundreds of artists’ performances, all from a web search and a click of a button. A slower, more relaxed invitation into the world of live music sits at the heart of these performances and makes the whole series stand out from more “traditional” concert recordings.

Whether it’s the hunt for new artists down the NPR Music page or an internet-surfing session to chase the concert craving, “Tiny Desk Concerts” offer acoustic comfort in these tumultuous times. Long after the show is over, and the laptop window is closed, it’s the live music experience that — thankfully — remains.

Joy Young, Chapman University

Writer Profile

Joy Young

Chapman University
English Literature

Constantly searching for new inspiration, Joy strives to stay curious and expressive. Fueled by coffee and creation, she’s passionate about finding ways to write it down and share it around.

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