Spotlight: How Bob Boilen Turned NPR's 'Tiny Desk Concerts' Into One of Music's Biggest Stages

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Eric Lee/NPR
Bob Boilen

'If we got really highly polished, I'd run screaming.... I want us to be the eyes of you if you were in that room.'

In July 2019 there were few who would have said no to Lizzo, then on the cusp of enjoying her first Billboard No. 1 hit with the massive, culture-defining single “Truth Hurts.” Count Tiny Desk Concerts creator, producer and creative director Bob Boilen as one of the exceptions.

“When Lizzo came in ... she wanted to do backing tracks which is how she does her concerts,” says Boilen, discussing the pop superstar’s recent appearance on the NPR Music series. “And I said, 'No, we're not doing that. Put a band together.'”

For the record, Boilen would have said no to any artist who made the same request. During its 11-year run, “unadorned” has been the name of the game at Tiny Desk Concerts, whose appeal lies in the nakedness of its setup: no backing tracks, no Auto-Tune, no frills. The resulting performances -- each taking place at Boilen’s actual desk inside NPR’s Washington, D.C. headquarters -- offer viewers an intimate look at artists both emerging and major. Though the former category still makes up the majority of acts who appear on the show, the past year alone has seen such heavy-hitters as Taylor Swift, Summer Walker, Jonas Brothers, Wu-Tang Clan and H.E.R. stop by the office.

When speaking with Boilen, these A-list names are the ones that float to the top of one’s mind; after all, seeing a major star like Swift performing inside a cramped office space at the height of her fame is bound to leave an impression. But Boilen is less star-struck than the average Tiny Desk viewer.

“Can I just stop you there?” Boilen interrupts when confronted with the flurry of impressive names. “Though that is cool, I don't get thrilled by the big artists. That's just not my thrill. My thrill is to watch an unknown [play a Tiny Desk], and then [see] a reaction happen. Or a type of music that someone's never heard before and they then become familiar with a South American singer or a Colombian jazz harpist. Things that would never, ever [have] entered their world. That to me is the beauty of what we do.”

It's instructive to watch the first-ever Tiny Desk performance, by singer-songwriter Laura Gibson, to get a sense of Boilen’s aesthetic. As the story goes, he and NPR Music writer and editor Stephen Thompson had difficulty hearing Gibson’s performance over crowd noise at a bar show held during the 2008 SXSW Music Festival. When Thompson joked to Gibson during a post-show interview that she should perform at Boilen’s desk the next time she came to D.C., the idea for Tiny Desk Concerts began forming in Boilen's mind.

Within weeks, Gibson was sitting in Boilen's office chair with an acoustic guitar performing a hushed 15-minute, four-song set for a small group of NPR employees. By contrast with today’s more polished Tiny Desk Concerts, whose name was inspired by Boilen's former band Tiny Desk Unit (he now performs with the group Danger Painters), the audio and video quality are decidedly lo-fi, and there are no backing players in tow to embellish Gibson’s performance.

“Left to my own devices, in some ways it would just still be that,” says Boilen of that first concert, which kicked off a series that has now stretched to over 900 episodes. And yet even as they added cameras, invested in improved sound technology and hired an audio engineer (currently Josh Rogosin), Boilen has been adamant about retaining the heart and soul of Tiny Desk Concerts, which remains a small operation staff-wise. “The philosophy remains the same: Capture the honest moment,” he continues. “If we got really highly polished, I'd run screaming. 'Cause there's enough of that in this world, fast cuts and all that stuff. I want us to be the eyes of you if you were in that room.”

Boilen -- who directed the NPR news program All Things Considered for 18 years and currently hosts its music-driven off-shoot All Songs Considered -- is also savvy enough to understand that the intimacy and simplicity of Tiny Desk Concerts are the very reasons why it has become such a success across demographics, with its 7.5 million monthly viewers making up the youngest and most diverse audience of any NPR property. Particularly for major pop acts, whose concerts are often choreographed down to the most minute details, the series offers a more straightforward presentation of music that is typically filtered through the best production tricks money can buy. One of the most notable examples of this stripping-away process came with the now-legendary October 2014 Tiny Desk performance by hip-hop artist T-Pain, whose heavy use of Auto-Tune had up to that point become his artistic touchstone. In Boilen’s estimation, that episode was a “game changing” one in that it fully showcased the potential of the series to shed new light on a performer who had been perceived as a one-trick pony.

“It helped redefine who he is, and it helped define who we were, if that makes sense,” says Boilen of the performance, which was spearheaded by former NPR Music editor Frannie Kelley. “It brought out something in him, and we were I think recognized for bringing that out of him.”

T-Pain’s soulful belting came as a surprise to many, resulting in arguably the first viral Tiny Desk concert that still stands as one of the series' most successful ever, racking up more than 16 million YouTube views to date. At the time, the performance was described as “eye-opening” by Billboard, while EW promised the set would “blow your mind.” Three years later, T-Pain even plotted a six-city acoustic concert tour inspired by his Tiny Desk appearance, a testament to the transformative power the series had on the public's perception of him.

It’s notable that Boilen, who for the show’s first few years selected many of the artists himself, cannot take credit for arguably the most important moment in the series’ decade-plus history. Then again, it was the freedom he gave those in his employ to pitch artists outside of his wheelhouse that allowed it to happen at all.

“My reaction [to T-Pain coming in] was, 'Eek,'” Boilen admits. “But at the same time it was respect -- and I think that's a good thing. There's no right or wrong in music.... That's maybe something you realize when you grow up a little bit. That it not a competition, that it either hits your soul or doesn't hit your soul and it's okay if it doesn't."

Not to say that Boilen automatically greenlights just any artist. Over the years, he says, the show has turned down “plenty” of acts that would have racked up impressive view counts. But he’s smart enough to know the value of an Adele or a Chance the Rapper to pull in viewers who wouldn’t otherwise wouldn't know the series existed, providing a gateway for them to discover lesser-known or emerging artists.

“If we were gonna do a series that was always new artists, something like that is not gonna take off,” he says. “When we did the Taylor Swift Tiny Desk concert, with people putting #TinyDesk [on social media], there were so many people in the threads who were saying, 'Tiny what?' She’s bringing people to this series who will hopefully discover 47Soul or Sharon Van Etten or Molly Sarlé.”

Data on the series' power as a launching pad for non-mainstream acts is encouraging. According to a July 2017 article in Forbes, Tiny Desk provided a greater boost for artists than late-night TV shows, on average, based on five social and streaming metrics including Wikipedia page views, Facebook page likes, Twitter and Instagram followers and Pandora artist station adds. The average lift was even more significant for emerging performers. 

Those statistics serve to validate Boilen's core mission of artist discovery -- a point he further stressed five years ago by introducing Tiny Desk Contests, an annual competition that solicits performance videos from essentially unknown acts for a chance to perform their very own Tiny Desk set. As a testament to the series’ influence, these appearances have paid career dividends for the winners. Since winning the inaugural contest in early 2015, blues singer Fantastic Negrito [aka Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz] has won two Grammys for best contemporary blues album, appeared on an episode of Fox’s Empire and had his 2014 track “An Honest Man” chosen as the theme song for the Amazon TV series Hand of God starring Ron Perlman. Meanwhile, 2017 winners Tank and the Bangas released their major-label debut, Green Balloon, earlier this year on Universal Music Group’s Verve Forecast label and last month scored a coveted Grammy best new artist nomination. 

The series is also doubling down on providing a platform for more mainstream acts. In October of this year, the showlaunched its inaugural Tiny Desk Fest, which opened up tickets to the general public for the first time. For $50 a piece, fans were granted access to one of four live-streamed performances, though the artists -- Wale, Sheryl Crow, Megan Thee Stallion and Raphael Saadiq -- weren’t announced ahead of time in keeping with the show’s music discovery ethos. The experiment was “super successful,” notes Boilen, who says they hope to offer tickets to more fans going forward, though he wouldn’t get into specifics. Notably, both Saadiq and Megan Thee Stallion’s sets saw the established names collaborating with lesser-known acts, with the former bringing along rising R&B singer Lucky Daye and Stallion debuting a new song -- the funk-inflected “F---ing Around” -- alongside the Brooklyn jazz band Phony Ppl. Boilen says these types of collaborations are something he’s looking to do more of, while livestreaming may also become a more frequent element of the series.

“It came out beautifully. We were proud of the way it sounded and proud of the way it looked,” he says of the livestreams. “This happened all of about four weeks ago and we're still trying to figure out, 'Okay, now we know we can do this, what are we gonna do with that?' So I'd say, yeah look to the future for sure.”

If Boilen had it his way, Tiny Desk’s future would also include performances by a few artists he refers to as his “white wales.” Though he admits he’s gained a “new appreciation” for performers outside his general wheelhouse through his exposure to them on the show, his bucket list is unmistakably old-school: Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Neil Young and Bob Dylan.

“Paul Simon I thought might, because [we did] an interview ... not too many years ago and I thought maybe it would happen,” he says. “Dylan and Neil Young, I don't think they're ever gonna happen. But you can dream.”

As for Tiny Desk's younger fans, seeing one of their favorite performers sing slightly off-key or accidentally play the wrong chord can reveal a valuable dimension to their art in an age when flaws tend to be scrubbed out. Says Boilen, "You get right to the soul when you see an artist making a mistake."

SPOTLIGHT:

Dealing with musicians has always been a pleasure and a thrill. I've come to realize that pretty thoughtful humans make the music I love.

The best advice is to be a good listener.

What's changed is the way artists think of themselves as “brands.” I wish they'd let the music speak for itself.

I knew I was committed to music when I dropped out of college to manage a record store and later quit that job to buy an ARP Odyssey to form the band Tiny Desk Unit.

The great thing about working at NPR is the trust, support, and wisdom I've experienced amongst my workmates. I found that support whether I was directing All Things Considered for 18 years, or proposing to start an online-only music show in 1999, or having concerts at my desk. I have had the trust of those around me, and I'm forever grateful for that.

Spotlight is a Billboard Business series that aims to highlight those in the music business making innovative or creative moves, or who are succeeding in behind-the-scenes or under-the-radar roles. For submissions for the series, please contact spotlight@billboard.com.

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