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Tiny Desk Concerts: a small stage for big music

In a small office within National Public Radio’s Washington D.C. headquarters, artists from every genre and walk of life have sat behind a ‘tiny’ desk. Be it a band you’ve never heard of or multiple Grammy-winning artists, Tiny Desk Concerts have become one of the greatest live platforms for music today. With previous participants including the likes of T-Pain, Adele, Yo-Yo Ma and Florence and the Machine, it comes as no surprise that the transformed office has gained significant attention from the mainstream media.

In the past two years, NPR Music has featured memorable performances leading to a rise in prominence over the American late-night shows that have for so long dominated live music being broadcast to television. Parallel to the growth of YouTube as a music platform, NPR has managed to consistently deliver to us authentic, diverse and original musical content.

So frequently is the word ‘intimate’ used to describe these concerts; at times it may be only two performers, at times fifteen, however, the room always appears too small. While live performances at festivals, concerts or even shows such as Saturday Night Live place significant emphasis on big budgets, Tiny Desk Concerts give an acoustic feel that immediately introduces a familiarity between artist and viewer regardless of commercial success. Creator and host Bob Boilen emphatically adds that NPR is able to deliver the “heart and soul of music” that so often lacks intimacy. From selling out Wembley and headlining Glastonbury to an office complex in America’s capital, almost ten million YouTube viewers have never felt closer to the MBE-awarded singer Adele during her performance of ‘Chasing Pavements’.

We are able to appreciate the true beauty behind the late Mac Miller’s ‘2009’, the true musical talent of Anderson .Paak and the incredibly soulful voice of Daniel Caesar all because we are afforded a never-before-felt proximity to these artists

With hundreds of books decorating the walls, littered with music memorabilia and a crowd of around eighty people all compacted into a small viewing area, the show could not be any more cramped. Artists often joke about the heat in the office and the lack of space, making it out to be a far-from-ideal stage for musicians to perform. NPR, however, manage to capture the character and essence behind each artist perfectly. We are able to appreciate the true beauty behind the late Mac Miller’s ‘2009’, the true musical talent of Anderson .Paak and the incredibly soulful voice of Daniel Caesar all because we are afforded never-before-felt proximity to these artists.

While the intimacy of Tiny Desk Concerts has led to its critically acclaimed rise in success, an oft-overlooked feature of the online series is the consistent musicianship that is on display. Artists are able to add to or change their sound, all in unique but pleasant ways. Boilen explicitly states that he aims to challenge the artists to perform in a different format than what they are accustomed to – “if they’re a band that’s used to playing electric, I will try to make them not do that”. This is seen in performances such as that of Yissy García & Bandancha, who primarily rely on electronic sounds for the crux of their music.

Behind the Tiny Desk, however, their rich Latin heritage and astounding musical talent prove a memorable acoustic performance, viewed by over 100,000 people. Claiming that “the best way to see an artist shine is to give them a challenge”, Boilen could not be closer to the truth. Viewers were able to find a personal affinity with Chance the Rapper’s impromptu poem, or T-Pain’s un-edited, un-tampered, unplugged singing voice that shocked the internet. Jorja Smith and her touring band were able to switch the sound of songs such as ‘Teenage Fantasy’ and ‘Blue Lights’ by adding 9th, 11th, and 13th intervals to the chords, making what were predominantly minor-key songs into jazz manipulations of them. Combined with acoustic performance, these changes were able to demonstrate the rising star’s versatility and musicality.

Not only is this a place for young artists to gain their first moments of recognition, but also a place for immortalised artists of their respective genres to grace the internet with their performances 

NPR boasts what many mainstream music platforms today are not able to: variety. While it began as an indie-rock dominated feature, over time its programme has expanded to become as diverse as its following, with alumni ranging from folk to Latin jazz musicians. Even artists such as the renowned Manhattan-originating trio Blue Man Group were featured behind the Tiny Desk, performing a unique set with their own original flavour evident through the use of unorthodox instruments and crowd interaction.

Not only is this a place for young artists to gain their first moments of recognition, but also a place for immortalised artists of their respective genres to grace the internet with their performances. Old-school hip-hop legends such as The Roots, Common and Rakim demonstrated why they are so revered in their genre, performing unforgettable classics. Globally celebrated 19-time Grammy award winner cellist Yo-Yo Ma delivered Bach’s unaccompanied ‘Prelude’ with incredible precision and emotion. The Desk has heard music that has lasted or will last generations from all four corners of the earth and shows no signs of stopping any time soon.

Over 700 performances in, NPR has established a strong foothold on the live music platform, with its intimacy and acoustic nature invoking a strong sense of authenticity towards the music on show. Viewers are able to connect and sympathise with whoever is performing, as the raw, unplugged feel of the shows means that even the biggest artists are able to sit behind this Tiny Desk.

 

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