NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Contest Not So Tiny

NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series has become anything but tiny since its inception in 2008. And this year, the series began a contest, open to all, where the winner gets to travel to NPR in Washington DC and play a concert at the tiny desk. In this inaugural year, the contest received over 7,000 entries, including 17 from Alaska.

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Playing a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR is a big deal—Cat Stevens, Jackson Browne, and Lucinda Williams are among the names who have performed in front of the book, CD and record shelves at the All Songs Considered office.

All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson conceived of the Tiny Desk Concert after leaving a bar show, frustrated they couldn’t hear the music over the crowd noise. When Boilen introduced the first ever Tiny Desk Concert in 2008 he says, “So we’re going to video tape this for our blog and maybe it’s the start of something and maybe it’s not.”

Alaskans compete for a seat at the tiny desk

Almost seven years later, the series has over 400 performance videos on its website. Boilen had no idea.

“I never really thought that it would go much beyond a little novelty thing that we did now and again,” Boilen says.

The name “Tiny Desk Concert” is a double entendre that references Boilen’s old psychedelic band the Tiny Desk Unit, and that artists literally play at his desk. The series was a success from that first video.

“This series spoke to people , the moment we put Laura Gibson online, in a video form, the reaction we got to that very video, because of its intimacy, connected on a level I didn’t really expect,” he says.

Fast forward eight years through concerts by Pat Benatar, T-Pain, Trey Anastasio, Nickel Creek, Neko Case, Lyle Lovett, Wilco, Steve Earle and hundreds more—and add and a twist.

“Yes there’s a contest, and wonderful there’s going to be a winner, but the most important wonderful thing is for people and friends to get together and make something—that’s the value of art, the value of community, that’s what we wanted to inspire,” he says.

Juneau-based musician Marian Call, who also happens to be a KRNN DJ, couldn’t agree more. Call, the Wool Pullers, and George Kuhar performed at a house concert in Juneau where three video entries were recorded for the contest.

Call says, “I’m anti-contests in general, but I felt like this one both had a good prize, a good mechanism, and was good for everyone even in the entering. It wasn’t exclusive, it wasn’t dangling money, it wasn’t dangling a record contract, it was just about performing in a venue that all of us have always wanted to perform in, right? But then, even better than that, they gave us an excuse to create our own space that felt like a Tiny Desk Concert, and claim it. So now 5,000 people have claimed a little stake of their own Tiny Desk world and I think that’s exactly the best possible outcome. More art was born.”

A Sleetmute- and Anchorage-based musician named Emma Hill also made some new art.

“One of the very first videos I watched,” says Boilen, “was a woman named Emma Hill and she did a song about Denali, just dedicated to her home and the thing that she loves. It’s a beautiful song, she did it with a banjo player who had the most fantastic looking banjo—it was like this refraction paper, psychedelic looking banjo. They both sat on little tiny chairs next to a little tiny table and it was delightful. I loved it.”

Boilen will announce the winner on NPR’s Morning Edition on Thursday. He says the choice was difficult and meant a lot of long nights at the Tiny Desk reviewing videos. Ultimately, he says the winner’s talent and charisma is undeniable. But who really cares about winners, it’s about the creation of new art, right?