The concept of the show is simple: Musical acts come to play a show behind the desk of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen.
They run the gamut from little-known alt-rock bands (Car Seat Headrest, Mothers) to legends (Yo-Yo Ma, Adele). They could be quiet acoustic duos, metal acts, 23-piece Brazilian brass bands, or hip-hop artists. There’s only one rule: All equipment has to fit behind the desk. No PA system, no elaborate effects rigs, no fancy electronics.
The shows are recorded and then posted to YouTube and NPR Music’s website, where they garner millions of views.
Confining an artist to a desk has a very real effect on the outcome of sound. Sets are incredibly intimate, up-close, and personal — sometimes almost painfully so. As one producer tells me, “There’s nowhere to hide at Tiny Desk”: Stripped of typical stage equipment, musicians are forced to confront the essence of their art form.
But to really understand the passion that drives the show, it’s necessary to first tell the story of Bob Boilen, its creator and host.
On August 15, 1965, more than 55,000 people flocked to New York’s Shea Stadium to watch the Beatles play. Ten miles away, on a stoop in Queens, Bob Boilen — then 11 years old — clutched his Westinghouse transistor radio and gazed out at the distant lights of the venue.
“I was so charged up,” he recalls. “The idea that you could actually go see a band play was unimaginable.”
Boilen spent the next five years of his youth holed up a room, spinning 45s: the Zombies, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Beach Boys, the Byrds. At the onset of FM broadcasting, the radio waves began to populate with DJ personalities — “tastemakers” who curated their own playlists and guided the musical tastes of America’s youth. Boilen would scratch together his own sets.
In the late ’60s, Boilen’s family moved from Queens to Bethesda, Maryland, and the teen — by then a “budding hippie” with flowing locks and bell-bottoms — found respite from the prevailing jock culture at Waxie Maxie’s, a local record store chain. He got a job as a record store clerk, and quickly became something of a local tastemaker.
“It was a musical education: I’d spend the entire day listening to all different kinds of records and talking about music” says Boilen. “It was my job to know the tastes of my customers. I became the personal shopper for many people who walked into the store.”
Eventually, Boilen decided to give music a try for himself. In 1979, he left the record store, spent his $2,000 savings on an ARP Odyssey synthesizer, and, with a few friends, launched his first band, Tiny Desk Unit. The name was something of an inside joke: “Our friend Bill had this little tray with a calendar and a pencil holder,” says Boilen. “He’d just pick it up and move it around. It was his tiny desk.”
At the time, the polyphonic synthesizer was just on the cusp of being popularized in mainstream music. Boilen, an early adopter, was recruited to work on an art installation imagining the history of sound from beginning of time to end of time. The resulting project, “Whiz Bang: A History of Sound,” was featured at Smithsonian’s American History Museum in 1983 — and Boilen’s composition caught the attention of NPR’s All Things Considered, which produced a story on it.
Five years later, in 1988, Boilen was toiling in a television production job he hated. Reminded of the story he’d done with NPR, he decided to give radio a shot.
He quit his job and tracked down the guy who’d worked on his synthesizer story — a young All Things Considered producer named Ira Glass. In an impassioned pitch, Boilen asked Glass for work.
“[Ira] asked me if I cut tape, and I said, ‘Sure, I cut tape!’” recalls Boilen. “Of course, I’d never cut tape in my life.” He was given a 20-minute interview and asked to cut it down to four minutes. With a reel, a razor blade, a grease pencil, and splicing tape, Boilen meticulously completed the task, and Glass asked him to come back the following week.
“I would literally show up at NPR every day, and say, ‘Hey, guys! Need any help today?’” says Boilen. “I just did it.”
The perseverance paid off: He was hired full time as an editor — and remarkably, within a year, he was directing All Things Considered.
While roaming around at the South by Southwest music festival in 2008, Boilen and Stephen Thompson (a co-producer at NPR Music) went to check out Laura Gibson, a relatively unknown singer-songwriter from Oregon.
“It was this awful bar — the speaker was pointing out the door, people were watching basketball games and cheering for their teams. [Laura] had a quiet voice, and we could barely hear her at all,” says Boilen.
Then an idea struck.
“Stephen jokingly said [to Gibson], ‘You should just come play in our office,’” says Boilen. “I just lit up. I thought that would be so cool.”
Three weeks later, Gibson showed up at NPR’s DC office. Boilen and some colleagues cleared some space off a desk, grabbed a couple of microphones and a camera, filmed a completely unadulterated, raw performance, and put it online.
What started eight years ago as an acoustic performance at a desk has since turned into one of the internet’s most popular music series. To date, NPR Music has recorded and produced more than 550 Tiny Desk concerts (including Jamaican stars, such as Gyptian), which have collectively generated more than 80 million views on YouTube.
Though Boilen is at the helm, he no longer monopolizes the show’s act selection: Suggestions for artists come in from a variety of NPR employees. The show still intrinsically caters to Boilen’s tastes — hipster-infused indie rock — but over the years, a wider variety of genres have been represented, from nu-jazz to hip hop.
“A lot of listeners think Tiny Desk is just Bob [picking bands],” NPR Music staffer Niki Walker tells me. “He’s certainly a tastemaker — but over the years there have been so many more people contributing music suggestions to the show.”
Much of the show’s appeal is what Boilen calls a “special intimacy” — capturing a performance with its imperfections and hiccups offers something markedly different from a studio track, which is ironed out and heavily produced. There is something about hearing a stripped-down show that reminds us of our own vulnerability and makes it exciting.
The concept of bringing intimacy back to music is not new.
As music became increasingly overproduced and synth-laden in the late 1980s (think Milli Vanilli), MTV’s Unplugged series found a tremendous audience. The show challenged big names like Eric Clapton, Aerosmith, and Kiss — acts typically laden with huge production crews — to go completely acoustic on a minimal stage.
Robert Small, the creator of Unplugged, conceived of the idea while working as a roadie with metal bands.
“I started noticing a lot of the enjoyable experiences were during rehearsal in a hotel room or on a bus when they played acoustically,” he tells me. “There was something really vulnerable about it.”