Direct Your Attention: Music’s biggest stage is actually quite small

By Owen Mason-Hill

PIA CONTRERAS BALBUENA

There’s a moment in each of my favorite NPR Tiny Desk Concerts when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up in applause because something truly remarkable has just happened. It’s at this moment that some of the music industry’s biggest stars and some of its brightest newcomers realize the potential of the intimate concert hall in which they find themselves. It’s found in Hobo Johnson’s impromptu message of gratitude for NPR’s Bob Boilen during “Peach Scone.” It’s found in Chance the Rapper’s poetry, written on the ride from his hotel to NPR’s office. It’s found in Anderson Paak’s wry smile as he says, “So y’all like being called b*****s over here,” in response to the audience’s song request. It’s in these moments when the talented and famous become human. 

The NPR Tiny Desk Concert series has existed for as long as I can remember, hosting its first guest, Laura Gibson, in April of 2008. “In a perfect world, there’d be no crowded bar shows or super-sized arena concerts. Musicians would come to your home for a private performance, or they’d show up at your office and play at your desk, easing you through the workday,” says Tiny Desk Concert creator Bob Boilen in the description of this inaugural show.

This beautiful yet simple idea that music should be heard closely and intimately is the keystone that holds together the Tiny Desk Concerts. What started in 2008 as a request to play a few songs at Boilen’s desk has turned into a YouTube channel with nearly five million subscribers and well over one billion views. At this point, it is no longer merely an idea but an institution that has been viewed and replicated all across the globe. It never ceases to amaze me just how massive an artist NPR can book, only to be followed by 10 more I’ve never heard of — yet who are just as talented. 

“Musicians would come to your home for a private performance, or they’d show up at your office and play at your desk, easing you through the workday.” PIA CONTRERAS BALBUENA

I, along with many others, flocked to this concert series for its big stars — Tyler, The Creator, Chance the Rapper, other musicians that don’t include a “the” in their name — yet find myself returning time and again to find new, unknown artists looking to make a name for themselves. I remember watching the Hobo Johnson and The Lovemakers concert and thinking to myself, “This is exactly the type of artist that was built for these concerts.” Johnson’s awkward charisma provided him and his band just the right amount of nervous excitement to match the honest and heartfelt lyrics of their spoken-word hip-hop music. At times it feels like entire songs are improved, leaning more toward emotional conversation than musical show. Interspersed within cleverly written verses with references to both Shakespeare and Jay-Z alike, Johnson riffs on his life, adding commonplace to the dramatic. “I got a duvet the other day,” Johnson says. “How do you wash a blanket? In a washer? That’s what I found out.” 

The NPR Tiny Desk Concerts humanize their guests in a way I hadn’t experienced before. As multiple-Grammy winner Chance the Rapper set about to read his newly minted poem titled “The Other Side,” he was suddenly and abruptly interrupted by a voice crackling over the loudspeaker asking for someone to call the mailroom. In the midst of reciting a heartfelt original poem about holding keys to a life he no longer lives, Chance was forced to start again. It is often easy to forget that this incredibly established institution is still in fact hosted in an actual office, behind an actual desk. Traditional concerts are carefully and deliberately choreographed down to the second, and rightfully so, but to see these wonderfully gifted musicians sing honestly and openly, unafraid to make a mistake, is quite remarkable. 

Here is my recommendation: search for your favorite artist’s concert and watch it the whole way through, and, when you’re done, let autoplay decide the next artist, and just let it roll for hours upon hours. There isn’t a bad concert in the entire catalog, and I’m sure that you’ll find new and exciting artists. If you thought that your Spotify’s Daily Mix was a perfect way to find new music, you are in dire need of what NPR has to offer. My only complaint is that the studio version of my favorite songs never live up to their live performance; perhaps its the soft acoustics provided by the office’s bookshelves, or maybe it’s this unparalleled feeling of closeness that you really can’t find on a studio album.