A year ago, “Tiny Desk” creator Bob Boilen, producer Bobby Carter and senior Director of NPR Music Lauren Onkey looked ahead to an uncertain future for the beloved online concert series.
“I believe NPR started to work from home on March 12,” says Onkey. “And I think we filmed our last ‘Tiny Desk’ concert in the office on March 11. We had Sudan Archives. Then, for the next couple of weeks, it was like, we’re going to have to postpone our concerts, and we really didn’t know what was going to happen.”
“Tiny Desk” had hosted scores of artists at NPR’s Washington, D.C. office — Adele, Anderson.Paak and Alicia Keys among those whose names just start with A — and was coming off high-profile appearances by Harry Styles, Coldplay and Lizzo when the coronavirus pandemic forced the 12 year-old institution to pivot. And it did so not just in moving the performances to alternate virtual settings, but changing up the curation dramatically.
From “Insecure Week,” where Black female artists performed songs from Issa Rae’s hit HBO show soundtrack, to celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month with acts like Ozuna, and honoring Black History Month with 2 Chainz (pictured), performing from a nail salon, and Rick Ross spitting while seated on a throne, what the series lost in the intimacy of Boilen’s deskside, it was able to replace with robust bookings over quarantine with artists from different parts of the globe that may not have been able to travel to Washington. (On March 10, the series featured a “Sounds of Zamunda” ensemble, five days after the movie “Coming 2 America” debuted on Amazon Prime Video.)
“Tiny Desk (Home)” came with a unique set of new challenges. One obstacle for Carter and his team was having to produce every show 100% remotely. “The obvious hurdle is that the control is no longer in our hands,” says Carter. “I think that we’re used to, in our former lives in the building, an artist would come into our world, and they would make the adjustment accordingly to our parameters. Now, we have to try and get as close to the artist and to the creative teams to get them to still abide by our parameters, still push the goal and the essence of the Tiny Desk, which is the intimacy, and try to get as close to that as possible.”
Appearances by Roddy Ricch, performing from the iconic West Coast Customs, and Atlanta collective Spillage Village in a church pulpit, are visual highlights, but it wasn’t always so. “Early on, if you look at some of our first ‘Tiny Desk (Home)’ concerts, it was literally someone playing right in front of the phone. It’s evolved, but the challenge is to keep the essence of the ‘Tiny Desk,’ which is small, stripped-down, and intimate. And we’ve hit the mark more than we haven’t, but there are a few shows that moved a little bit over-the-top.”
“Tiny Desk” has always been a space that allowed artists to be vulnerable, and it has created some emotional moments. Carter produced Mac Miller’s “Tiny Desk” concert in 2018. Released just one month before the rapper’s tragic overdose, it was one of Miller’s last live performances and the first to debut song from his album, “Swimming.”
“What you see is what you get when you watch that show,” says Carter. “You got a glimpse of it during the performance, but when the cameras weren’t rolling, it was playtime. I know there’s a few videos out there, like some b-roll footage, of the band just wildin’ out and having fun before we shot, but I remember I was a little stressed because I couldn’t get them to stop clowning. It was that kind of show.”
Carter continues: “But once the cameras were rolling, he was such a maestro and a master at the craft. Obviously, you had Thundercat, Joe Cleveland and an amazing group of musicians, but make no mistake about it, Mac was running the show. There’s a real interesting part in the video when you go back and watch them do the song ‘What’s the Use.’ We run through the entire set, we do a brief rehearsal before the cameras start rolling, and I remember Thundercat started to play the bass a little ahead and at the wrong time. So if you go back, and I hope Stephen [Thundercat] doesn’t kill me for this, and you watch the beginning of ‘What’s the Use,’ right before the bassline, Mac sort of puts his hand up as if to say ‘not right there.’ Mac was just such a master at the craft. Rapping was only half of it, he was a master musician who knew exactly what he wanted and it was pretty cool to see.”
Rapper Rick Ross recalls closing his “Tiny Desk” set with “Tears of Joy,” telling Variety that the performance was “personal” for him. “With that record, I think about so many people that meant so much to me along the way who aren’t here to enjoy my success, to see the things that I overcame, and to see the position that I’m in now,” Ross says.
Another critical element that has kept “Tiny Desk (Home)” humming is the community the series has fostered. Onkey recognizes this and believes that “Tiny Desk (Home)” has maintained its momentum in large part due to its faithful viewers. “It just gained momentum and, I have to say, I wasn’t sure whether the audience would be going elsewhere because there was so much video content coming out from everywhere, and the new concerts didn’t look and feel like our concerts in the office,” says Onkey. “But people really stuck with us, and it was a great example of the kind of relationships you can have with your audience. They trusted us, and we felt very passionately that we were there to serve the audience.”
Carter concurs. “For me, as a person who relies heavily on music for survival, it means so much in this moment to see and hear about what these shows mean to other people,” he says. “We spend a pretty considerable amount of time in our YouTube comments just to hear the good stuff, see the bad stuff, get feedback, recommendations. But to see a show like Kirk Franklin’s ‘Tiny Desk’ go viral means so much.”
After seeing the positive reaction to the at-home series, Onkey adds: “I would imagine that we’ll keep some element of at-home concerts in the future for special projects, maybe themes… I think that will be the way forward with once we get back to ‘normal’ normal.”