The Intimate Artistry of the Tiny Desk Concert


Brandon Huang, Staff Writer

Adele. Tyler, the Creator. BTS. These are some artists whose performances are associated with filled stadiums, extravagant stages, and grandiose, surreal concert experiences. To be among the thousands of fans at a live showing of your favorite music can be life-changing. The power of song, the energy of the crowd, the full display of an artist’s work without the safety of a studio or editing; the ultimate goal of all these aspects is to move the audience with their immensity.

And yet, there’s something truly beautiful about the downplayed, modest, everyday atmosphere of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts. This series, which started in 2008 with complaints of crowd noise drowning out a concert’s music, recently celebrated their 1000th concert, having amassed over two billion views on YouTube. Through featuring hundreds of performers, Tiny Desk Concerts have taken on a vast range of diverse artists, from giving superstars more personal settings to providing a platform for lesser known musicians.

Tiny Desk Producer Bob Boilen explains, “When I started the Tiny Desk series in April of 2008, I never imagined its impact. It’s a thrill to see how NPR Music and the Tiny Desk have become such a huge platform and that so many artists’ voices have been raised and shared with all kinds of music fans worldwide.”

Alongside a barebones set, artists perform with mainly acoustic accompanists (and often background vocalists). As such, the setlist reflects this; chosen songs are typically low-key and slow, more closely resembling the environment of a jazz cafe than an explosive concert. In addition, audience members (office employees of the NPR Music department) tend to remain silent until the end of the performance.

There are exceptions to this. Occasionally, especially with rappers whom Tiny Desk invites, high-tempo songs are added to the setlist and covered in acoustic, bedroom-pop-esque form. With such deft adaptation, a first-time listener could believe it to be the original. This is what I find so powerful about Tiny Desk Concerts—they allow these musical artists to prove they are just that: artists. They know their craft to such an extent that they can mold their work into another genre so entirely and so flawlessly.

Music has so many dimensions on which its art can be expressed: in its lyrics, its vocals, its instrumentation, its tempo, its volume. With Tiny Desk Concerts, because these dimensions are explored, a song’s art can be explored in a totally unheard of direction as well.

Finally, I thought I’d give some recommendations of my favorite Tiny Desk Concerts in no particular order. (Whether or not the genre of the artist appeals to you, I strongly recommend still giving them a listen.)

  • Tyler, the Creator

  • Denzel Curry

  • Mac Miller

  • Phoebe Bridgers

  • Aminé

  • Jack Harlow

  • beabadoobee

  • Death Cab For Cutie