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How NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts Took Over the Internet

With intimate, exclusive performances from the likes of Chance the Rapper and Adele, the live music series has an entire industry chasing a ‘pivot to video.’ But it won’t be easy to replicate.

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“This is weird as hell for me,” says T-Pain, and the feeling is mutual, for both the modest office-drone crowd gathered before him in mid-2014 and the unseen faces behind the 10 million-plus views awaiting him later. “Never done anything like this,” he adds. “Didn’t think you guys were gonna be here, but I guess we’re doing this.”

The cuddly R&B hedonist perches on a swivel chair in National Public Radio’s Washington, D.C., office. The shelves behind him are full of books and CDs and twee memorabilia. By “you guys,” he means the NPR employees and cohorts who will now watch him sing his hit 2007 single “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)” in broad daylight, in their literal workspace, with none of the Auto-Tune or other digital trickery for which he is rightly famous. Instead he will be accompanied only by an electric pianist named Toro.

“Pianist!” T-Pain blurts out. “Haha! Funny word!” He is either genuinely nervous or shrewdly feigning nervousness for the sake of drama. “I know everybody’s wondering where the Auto-Tune is gonna come from—it’s OK, I got it in my pocket, it’s totally fine,” he adds. “I got it right here, it’s all surgically inserted.”

The crowd laughs, genuinely nervous. Toro plays a few lush, creamy chords, jazzy, sophisticated. And then T-Pain starts the song, and sings the absolute hell out of it.

He sounds incredible, yearning and vulnerable, like a classic soul-belter heavyweight from the bygone era of Real Music that Auto-Tune supposedly ruined for everybody. The unseen crowd’s awe is palpable; after the song’s over, T-Pain chortles delightedly through their applause. Next comes another radio hit, “Up Down (Do This All Day),” and he’s looser now, bouncing and spinning in his chair as he rap-sings, “Shawty thick / Thicker than a Snicker / Every time she do it it’s for me and mmyyyyy,” coyly dodging the NSFW rhyme as the crowd laughs again, less nervousness, more awe.

He wraps it up with a tender slow-jam ballad called “Drankin’ Patna,” basking goofily in a final round of applause and scattered thank-yous. “That was the extent of that,” he concludes, playfully barking at his newfound admirers. “Hahahahaha! Alright! Back to work!”

When T-Pain’s installment of NPR’s long-running Tiny Desk Concert video series went live in October 2014, it inspired a burst of hugely admiring and mildly condescending praise. (The verbiage ranged from “eye-opening” to “blows the entire world’s mind” to various iterations of “awesome” to “surprisingly, behind all that Auto-Tune he’s a phenomenally talented singer.”) With almost 11 million YouTube plays and counting, it’s easily the franchise’s single biggest installment, topping other high-profile visits from Anderson .Paak and even Adele.

Shepherded by NPR Music’s Bob Boilen (the performance space is still his actual desk), the series launched in 2008 and is now closing in on 650 performances, from the xx to the National to Jessie Ware to Common to Chris Stapleton. In July, Chance the Rapper made a highly touted and very reverential appearance, seven-member backing band in tow. “I’m a big fan of the series,” Chance began. “And I didn’t know it was actually, actually an office. So this is very uncouth.” Then he did an achingly gentle version of “Juke Jam,” covered Stevie Wonder’s “They Won’t Go When I Go,” and recited a poem he’d written that morning, cheerfully restarting it after being interrupted by some sort of office intercom announcement.

For music fans, this is as close to essential viewing as native internet video gets. In July, Forbes ran some numbers and concluded that Tiny Desk Concerts sometimes draw more engagement than appearances on late-night talk shows like Stephen Colbert’s or Jimmy Fallon’s. (And thanks to his house band, the Roots, Fallon’s biggest musical moments tend to have a familiar air of cramped renegade whimsy.) The “intimate performance in a bizarre setting” genre is booming, a trail partly blazed by the French series La Blogothèque, which has for more than a decade brought you such delightful oddities as the Arcade Fire playing in an elevator.

Tiny Desk has perfected this idea, earnestly. “I do what I do because I think the heart and soul of music—that’s missing in music—is intimacy,” Boilen tells me.

When major brands and publications, from MTV to Fox Sports to Vocativ to Vice, lay off scores of writers and editors and announce their desire to “pivot to video,” they’re imagining they can concoct a franchise as durable and ingenious as Tiny Desk: something simple, repeatable, applicable to artists in all genres, and best of all exclusive. This is the glorious future many internet publishers—or at least their advertisers—are envisioning.

But Tiny Desk has very few worthy competitors; the internet has few musically inclined web franchises durable and distinct enough to rise above the internet’s fearsome Infinite Content muck. Drop everything you’re doing, hit play, and just watch this is a tough ask in 2017, especially if you’re targeting hard-core audiophiles already buried in great music they haven’t gotten to yet. The mixture of charisma, novelty, and easily grasped ingenuity required is almost impossible to get right. At their best, videos like this can slow you down, chill you out, sharpen your focus, deepen your appreciation for just one thing for a change. But as wonderful as these ultra-rare franchises are, they might be the shrewd exceptions that prove the monotony of the rule.

“I think my manager made the best joke about it,” says Midwestern country-adjacent singer-songwriter Lydia Loveless of the intimate-performance boom. “He was like, ‘Some of these are turning into Planes Flying Over Sessions where you stand on top of a building and you wait for the plane to fly over to play.’ It’s getting a little ridiculous. People have to have a ‘fun’ spin on it.”

In the past few years, Loveless has performed in countless studios, in addition to a barber shop, a record store, her label’s office, Paste magazine’s very large storage closet, alongside a river in Austin, and near the train tracks outside a Boston warehouse. For starters.

Touring musicians often enjoy rearranging their songs to fit these odd spaces, as opposed to playing the same songs the exact same way in a same-y looking nightclub night after night—a burst of novelty Loveless likens to “buying your wife lingerie.”

But “I won’t lie,” she says. “And I certainly don’t want to sound like some sort of ingrate asshole musician, but I think there’s some of those that are worth doing, and some of them that you’re like, ‘Oh my God.’ Like, you’re on tour, and you’re driving, and you feel like you’re going into a serial killer’s house, because it’s some residential area, and they’re like, Let’s go into the basement, and the guy’s smoking crack or whatever, and you’re like, Ahhhhhhh.”

That is very much not the vibe Bob Boilen meant to cultivate when he and his NPR cohort Stephen Thompson first dreamt up Tiny Desk Concerts in 2008, after fuming through a noisy and distraction-packed Austin bar gig from folk singer Laura Gibson, and realizing that it’d be far better to have Gibson just play for them in their office. The charm is that she looks both perfectly at ease and totally out of place.

“My decision-making goes, I’m trying to challenge them,” Boilen says. “So if they’re a band that’s used to always playing electric, I will try to make them not do that. That’s the gut of what this is, is to make them do something they ordinarily wouldn’t do. The best way to see an artist shine is to give them a challenge. That’s what makes artists artists.”

The discomfort, and the jangling nerves, is real, but not manufactured, exactly. “Manufactured is a funny word,” Boilen says. “I don’t know that I’d use that. I think it’s naturally uncomfortable. I mean, for many groups, NPR is something they’ve listened to, there’s an aspiration to it, they want to do good. For younger people, it is the first time in their lives that their parents will understand what they’re doing: Oh, OK, you’re on NPR, OK, I see. Validation stamped.”

(Loveless did her own Tiny Desk in 2014 and speaks highly of the series, though she fears her own installment was “kind of clinky and clackety.”)

“So for many people, it’s just nervous to begin with,” Boilen continues. “And now they’re gonna do something that they don’t ordinarily do. There are no monitor speakers. We do not amplify the singer’s voice in the room. So everybody has to play quieter than their singer can sing. And that varies, depending on the singer.”

Nearly 10 years later, Tiny Desk is a venerated institution with a roster that skews toward core NPR notions of indie, folk, and jazz, but also T-Pain, or Gucci Mane, or Run the Jewels, or D.R.A.M. For his part, Boilen tilts toward the even weirder stuff: Pressed to pick a personal favorite, he usually demures but also mentions Moon Hooch, a skronking underground-jazz trio featuring a drummer and two saxophonists, one of whom adorned his sax with a giant orange traffic cone for the occasion.

“I love looking at the faces of people when you see them witnessing something they had never imagined could be before, and fall in love with music they didn’t know they’d fall in love with,” Boilen says. “And then the next step is that it’s even more insane than I ever thought it would be. Those are the moments where it really hits me.”

NPR now oversees a Tiny Desk contest, in which young bands send in homemade video entries, with the victor getting to record The Real Thing in The Real Office. Boilen says the 2017 contest inspired somewhere around 7,000 entries; the victors were Tank and the Bangas, an absurdly vibrant soul-funk outfit that seems to make everyone either grin or weep or both. Chance shouted the group out during his own Tiny Desk; they went on to do similar videos for, among others, The Onion’s A.V. Club.

A.V. Club, in fact, has a killer intimate-performance franchise of its own: the seven-year-old Undercover series, in which bands visiting the publication’s Chicago office choose from a dwindling list of cover songs, resulting in such dissonant (and not-so-dissonant) combinations as Yo La Tengo covering the Supremes, Iron and Wine covering George Michael, or They Might Be Giants covering Destiny’s Child. This is a likewise close-quarters affair, heavy on genre flexibility and total absurdity, as when, say, Gwar find themselves channeling Billy Ocean.

This series relies more on a dissonant familiarity: You know the band, you know the song, and you’d never imagined the two together, though when the result works perfectly, you end up kicking yourself for your failure of imagination. (Try cheery pop-punk brats Charly Bliss doing Len’s “Steal My Sunshine.”)

Launched in 2010, Undercover is currently wrapping up its eighth 25-song season: The cover-song stunts are the main draw, but there’s also an air of cheerful confinement, a sense that something very odd is happening in a very odd place at a very odd time. Like NPR with Tiny Desk, The Onion has moved offices over the course of Undercover’s run and thus has shot the series in two different spaces; the first studio was a tiny, round, hot room that inspired an inspirational sort of discomfort.

“When we were still doing the round room, 90 percent of bands would walk into the room and say the same thing: ‘Whoa, I didn’t realize it was this small,’” says Onion editorial director Josh Modell. “But I think that let people be a little looser than they would be, ’cause they’re just like, ‘Oh, fuck it. We don’t have monitors. All our amps are pointing at each other. Let’s just have fun with it.’ That resulted in some things that have this amazing energy, and some things that probably could’ve been better if they could hear themselves play.”

The series is far more established now, and their new studio at least slightly larger. But very strange things still happen.

As with NPR, The Onion’s revered brand is both soothing and nervously motivating: Results vary wildly on Undercover, and pre-taping rehearsal can drag on. “We had a band last year, they couldn’t get the lyrics, like very simple lyrics—they kept fucking them up,” says A.V. Club senior editor Marah Eakin. “They had to keep doing the whole thing over and over and over.” (“Because they were immensely hungover,” Modell adds.) But on the flip side are Baltimore indie-rockers Wye Oak, who’ve done Undercover four times now, and liked the results so much they put out two of the songs (the Kinks’ “Strangers” and Danzig’s “Mother”) as a 7-inch.

“I think you can always tell what people’s priorities and intentions are with this sort of thing,” writes Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner in an email. (The band did a Tiny Desk, too.) “Whether they’re in it to create some sort of product placement or unusual click-grabbing content, or whether they’re genuinely interested in seeing what emerges when they put creative people in interesting situations … I think that’s why those Tiny Desk videos are so popular, and it’s definitely why we keep coming back to do the A.V. Club Undercover series over and over. Those folks are genuinely excited to see what comes out of these little experiments, and they go above and beyond to make sure that the artists have everything they need to make the most of an unusual situation.”

The platonic ideal is something unusual but not too abstract, challenging but not paralyzingly awkward, marketable but not garishly corporate. Push artists too far and they won’t participate; push viewers too far and they’ll close the tab after 15 seconds. It’s a tough sell if you’re asking musicians to learn a new song or radically rework their old ones; it’s even tougher if you’re trying to get them to just talk to you.

The other way to stand out amid the Exclusive Internet Content boom is to apply that same bizarre guerrilla energy to the on-camera artist interview, with some sort of goofy randomized rubric designed to force musicians to think fast and talk about something other than themselves. The paragon of this form is Pitchfork’s Over/Under, which launched in 2012 with a simple concept: The artist sits there and rates each of 30 or so random topics as overrated or underrated, with the result cut down to a song-length bacchanal of discursive glee.

So there’s T-Pain again, describing the poop emoji as “confusing, creepy, Japanese as hell” before musing at length about Helen Mirren’s “bangability.” There’s rapper Danny Brown offering some freshly timely thoughts on North Korea and picking his nose while debating the finer points of baths vs. showers. There’s indie-rock guitar heroine Marnie Stern lambasting the Lost finale. There’s Vince Staples announcing, “I will never be Amish—it’s not my movement.”

Louisiana rapper Kevin Gates’s installment is particularly delightful, in a slapstick sort of way. Direct quotes range from “I don’t get colds and shit, my dog lick me in my mouth so I don’t get sick” to “The end of desire is the end of all suffering”; he also sings snippets of Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blink-182, and Panic! at the Disco. This is the “buying your wife lingerie” principle applied to the interview, not the performance, a disorienting burst of fresh air for the artist and the audience alike.

“A plus of doing this is there’s no preparation,” says Pitchfork senior editor Ryan Dombal, who came up with the original idea. “There’s no preparation involved for them—it’s just a fun game you’d play if you were at summer camp or something. We can get these artists who are in New York for two days doing some promo stuff, and a lot of times they’ll be like, ‘This is a lot more fun than the other 30 interviews I had to do yesterday.’ I think that goes a long way.”

The guest list ranges from Destroyer’s Dan Bejar (on Jim Carrey: “I think he’s had a bad influence on children”) to Father John Misty (“I think egomania’s due for a renaissance”). But it’s no secret that rappers, from Waka Flocka Flame to Migos, especially excel at this. (“I mean, they’re just funnier,” Dombal says. “They just are.”) It is likewise no accident that the very first Over/Under starred Das Racist, the now-defunct New York City rap group who did better interviews than any other artist in the 21st century.

Das Racist member Himanshu Suri—who also did an Over/Under with his new group, the Swet Shop Boys—is a veteran of what are, for both better and worse, the Content Wars. “At this point I feel like being a ‘professional’ artist—one who lives off music—is about getting the most you can for yourself while they get their clicks and what they need,” he writes in an email. “A song on a blog is selling clicks. A video is selling clicks. A festival gig is selling brand awareness. A club gig is selling alcohol. Working with brands is a given—it's about how to work with the right brands. Often as an artist you do feel like you're doing the heavy lifting and content creation, but you'd rather have that control in your visibility than let others.”

The key to surviving in this landscape might be maintaining plausible deniability that it’s a landscape at all. NPR’s Boilen says he doesn’t watch any of Tiny Desk’s many competitors and disciples: He’s busy enough running the flagship operation. “Other people doing it? Fine,” he says. “More power to them. The world is full of highly, and too highly produced, overproduced, complicated things that get in the way, oftentimes, of music, because they think people need flashy visuals. And that’s just bullshit. People love music. And if they like some visual component to it, great. I just think it gets out of hand.”

The best ideas are the simplest, at least in the realm of convincing people to actually click on the giant play buttons now clogging up their computer screens. For artists, this is work—they might call it marketing if they’re honest about it, and prostitution if they’re cynical about it. The trick is to trick them into revealing different sides of themselves, to get the clicks you need by giving them just enough of what they want.

Content-addled fans won’t click if they don’t know what they’re getting into, but they won’t stick around unless you surprise them. A truly revelatory journalist vs. musician Q&A is a rare beast nowadays, when the biggest names can either confine their press interactions to text messages or simply interview each other. Whether through radically stripped-down performances or radically deconstructed conversations, these videos are as close to a legitimate glimpse into their souls as you’re likely to get anymore. But the fans won’t buy it unless they’re pretty sure there’s nothing untoward being sold to them. Good luck. All these content-pushers intent now on pivoting to video will need something more to stand out, but they’ll also need the least amount of more possible.

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