Bob Boilen On The Musical Magic Behind The Tiny Desk

Mar 10, 2020

The 2020 Tiny Desk Contest is underway, and it represents a potentially life-changing opportunity for unsigned musicians across the country.

For NPR Music's Bob Boilen, the host and producer of the Tiny Desk Concerts, it's also an opportunity to discover talented artists who otherwise might remain undiscovered. 

Boilen spoke to Iowa Public Radio about the contest and what it can mean for musicians, even if they don't win.

Where did the inspiration for the Tiny Desk Contest come from?

"We wanted to discover people we’d never discover and hear the talent that’s so prevalent in this country. It’s the same reason I go to music festivals that are known for unknown artists. The contest gets us thousands of people in their living rooms and bedrooms, sending us videotapes of them performing songs from their heart and souls."

Music can be something that gives you time to take thought and stock of who and what you are. I hope our contest entries touch people in meaningful ways. - Bob Boilen

What makes a performer stand out among the thousands of submissions you get every year?

"Usually, it’s some element of surprise. It could be the way they sing, something in the lyrics they’re conveying, or the way they approach their instrument. That’s what I look for in music. It’s what I grew up on: you’re familiar with a band, and then they put out their next record, and they do something they never did before. That’s what excites me. Hearing the 'same old same old' is not what excites me.

We all have something different we want from music. Some of us want to dance, sing along and have fun. Some want deeper meaning, and some like sonic adventure (like myself). But when I judge the contest, I look for elements of unique talent, and I want to make sure the rest of the world hears that and sees that."

What did some of the past winners show you that others haven’t? What did they bring that was new?

"Well, look at Fantastic Negrito, our very first contest winner. It was his presentation, his presence, and the way he sang was right from his heart to my ears. There was no filter to that man, and it was pretty beautiful. And Tank and The Bangas, I see and hear a sense of humor and a sense of wonder but also a deep sense of sincerity and the ability to have a great deal of fun."

Last year, a friend of ours at Iowa Public Radio, Elizabeth Moen, was featured by NPR Music for her entry. Even if you don’t win the contest, can this be a boost for your career?

"Many things happen to artists who do this! It’s a way to mark a time in their career, to force them to post that song online, and a way to capture our attention. We may put it on the All Songs Considered site, and thousands of eyeballs and “earballs” will fall on that video. Just doing this thing is self-affirming and helps foster creativity and careers."

Do you have a dream guest for the Tiny Desk?

"I jokingly have what I call my 'white whales,' like Neil Young or Bob Dylan. That’s in part seriousness. I mean, certainly I’d love for those people to come. But my dream guest is the one that I can’t imagine, and that will surprise me and blow me away and be memorable forever. That’s the beauty of this contest. Last year when Quinn Christopherson came and played the desk, there was hardly a dry eye in the room. It was extraordinary, and I wouldn’t have ever imagined someone like Quinn."

Why does music matter right now?

"I remember being the director of All Things Considered in 2001 when the Twin Towers came down. I remember choosing music for that show, and looking at a wall of CDs and thinking, 'There’s this horrible thing that’s happened in this world, and here I am picking music out? How unbelievably irrelevant this is, in the scheme of things.' And then I played that music on the show, and people would write me letters and send me notes about how meaningful it was to stop, to think, to pause, and just take it in and breathe.

Music can be something that gives you time to take thought and stock of who and what you are, or it can be as simple as going out dancing, or singing along and having fun, or doing something memorable. There’s all sorts of reasons for music and entertainment, and thought-provoking things in this world, and I hope some of our contest entries that we put online touch people in meaningful ways."