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Music Journeys: Bob Boilen

Apr 12, 2019

Credit NPR

The 5th edition of NPR Music's Tiny Desk Contest wraps up this weekend. Entries must be submitted by Sunday night at 11:59 with a winner announced in mid-May.

Over the first four years, the contest received more than 22,000 entries from artists and bands across all 50 states. But there would be no contest without the Tiny Desk Concert Series created by Bob Boilen in 2008. In the latest edition of Music Journeys, Boilen explains the origin of the series and what makes a good contest entry. 

Sample of Laura Gibson performing the first Tiny Desk…

Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Laura Gibson performed the first Tiny Desk Concert in 2008. That year, Boilen and his NPR Music colleague Stephen Thompson saw Gibson perform at the SXSW Festival in Austin.

"She was singing in a club without a good sound system, and the people were watching basketball," Boilen recalled. "We just couldn’t hear her. When she came off stage, we said why don't you just come play a concert for us in our office?  A couple weeks later and about 11 years ago to this day, Lauren Gibson said I'm coming. She did. I recorded her sitting at my chair at my desk. I edited it, and we posted it. People flipped for it, so we did more."  

800-plus performances more in fact. It's almost easier to say who hasn't performed at the Tiny Desk. It's provided a stage for artists across all genres from Adele to actor and banjo player Steve Martin to Khalid.   

Sample of Khalid performing at the Tiny Desk…

In 2015, NPR Music wanted to open up that experience to unsigned bands and musicians and started the Tiny Desk Contest. 

Sample of Fantastic Negrito’s contest entry...

Fantastic Negrito won the inaugural competition with this entry. Since then he's won two Grammy awards. Subsequent Tiny Desk Contest winners Gaelynn Lea, Tank and the Bangas, and Naia Izumi have all built passionate fan bases. A twist to this year's contest involved opening it up to artists 18 years and older instead of 21 and over. For Boilen, singularity makes a good submission.

"I like to see an artist do something that nobody else can do except that artist," Boilen said. "That’s a hard achievement, but you could do it in small ways. Maybe you play the guitar quite differently than anyone else or maybe you sing or write words in ways people don't normally write words. I love to be surprised by someone making music that I had not quite heard before. That's certainly something I look for in the thousands of entries."

Boilen has always been fascinated by music, even recording his own songs. In fact, the the Tiny Desk Concert name comes from his late 1970’s band Tiny Desk Unit. The All Songs Considered host also spent 18 years directing All Things Considered, choosing the music within the show, even producing music stories for the program. But seeing the growth of the Tiny Desk Concert series and its companion competition for lesser known artists means more.  

"When I started playing music, I kind of wished that I would have become known for the music I made," Boilen admitted. "But now I have this opportunity to offer a platform to these artists to change their lives. In so many ways, that is so much more rewarding that the other dream might have been."

Tonight, Boilen will be in Nelsonville to introduce Tank and the Bangas for the band's performance at Stuart's Opera House.

Enjoyed this short feature? Please check out the full Music Journeys podcast below to hear more from Bob Boilen, including his responses to the Fast Five. Thanks for listening. More information about the Tiny Desk Contest can be found here.

Podcast Rundown

000 - Introduction, fund drive thanks, coming attractions

2:08 - Bob Boilen full feature 

15:30 - Bob Boilen's Fast Five