Creativity at first blush might seem to thrive best when unencumbered. After all, doesn’t the kid with the 120 crayon box have more possibilities than his friend who only got the basic 8 pack? Counterintuitively, however, constraints can often spur artists and creators to greater heights, while unlimited options can result in analysis paralysis, the inability to make a decision when there are too many options to consider.
Almost all great art exists within a well-defined medium. Painters, for example, have to stay within their canvases and writers choose a prose structure they adhere to. These hard limits on what they can create, help remove distractions and force the artist to focus deeply on maximizing the potential of their chosen format.
As poet and philosopher G.K. Chesterton put it: “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” And removing options, according to composer Igor Stravinsky, encourages the artist to direct their energies to where it can have the greatest impact: “The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self. And the arbitrariness of the constraint serves only to obtain precision of execution.”
“…We Should Just Have You Play at Bob’s Desk.”
The same principle can be seen at work today in a wildly different and popular live video series hosted by NPR Music. Tiny Desk Concerts is the brainchild of All Songs Considered host Bob Boilen. He and NPR Music editor Stephen Thompson invented a three-song live concert format that deprives artists of most of the digital tools and even basic amplification equipment that they typically employ.
What’s more, instead of performing at a massive arena outfitted with computer-controlled lights, video screens, pyrotechnics, and other crowd-wowing, performance-enhancing effects, these recording artists sing their hearts out at Boilen’s actual coffee mug and manilla folder-strewn desk at NPR’s office in Washington D.C.
The only hard and fast rule is that anything artists bring with them has to physically fit behind the desk. That means giant mixing boards, powerful amplifiers, and other gizmos that might create a distance between the artists and their audience are not allowed.
As the story goes, Boilen and Thompson came up with the idea at the 2008 South by Southwest Festival. After a disappointing show where they were unable to hear folk singer Laura Gibson over a raucous crowd, Thompson joked to the singer-songwriter that he would have preferred if she could come to their office and perform at Boilen’s desk.
The suggestion struck Boilen as more than just humorous. Just one month later, the sounds of Gibson’s gentle singing voice was attracting curious onlookers among the NPR staff, who quickly congregated around Boilen’s desk to catch the impromptu and minimalistic concert.
Raw, Real, and Incredibly Intimate
Underproduction wasn’t a flaw, however, it was, according to Boilen, the show’s hook:
“There was something that happened there I never would’ve imagined. It was the intimacy, as I’ve come to understand it. There was nothing between you and the artist. There was no silly music video of someone running through a field. It wasn’t lip-synced. No reverb, studio niceties, just Laura’s voice coming through a beautiful microphone. Humble. It just worked.”
Boilen dubbed the event the Tiny Desk Concert, naming it after the 1970s psychedelic dance band he once fronted called Tiny Desk Unit. Since the inaugural performance, over 800 concerts have been recorded, amassing over 2 billion collective views on NPR Music’s YouTube channel. Rapper Anderson Paak’s performance in 2016 is currently the series most popular, with over 34 million views.
But the artist that, more than any other, helped the series breakout and achieve wider appreciation than NPR’s traditional audience — as well as to showcase why the format’s restrictions create a space for raw and intimate experiences — was legendary auto-tune star, T-Pain.
Known for digitally modulating his voice with pitch-correcting software, T-Pain proved his natural vocal chops are also capable of captivating a crowd. Before Paak, that performance was the show’s most popular, racking up 15 million views to date. Boilen praised the artist for “totally abandoning the technology people think he’s reliant on” and letting his organic talent shine through.
The series expanded to include amateur musicians in late 2014 when NPR sent out a call for non-established artists to submit entries for the Tiny Desk Contest. The event has grown in popularity over the years and now attracts over 6000 submissions annually.
Winners are chosen by NPR staff members, as well as a few celebrity jurors such as Trey Anastasio of Phish and Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. Some bands, like Tank and the Bangas who won in 2017, credit the show for kick-starting their careers.
For his part, Bob Boilen feels the most gratifying part of the experience is exposing fans to music and experiences they were missing out on: “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.”
Authenticity Does More With Less
Despite living through the loudness wars which resulted in the music industry cranking every song up to 11 for competitive advantage, the stripped-down, barebones, small in size and amplitude nature of the show is precisely why it’s so successful.
Audiences have plenty of options for heavily produced, software adjusted, pitch-perfect studio recordings. A short, fun, and very real performance, complete with awkward pauses, occasionally mistuned instruments, and unedited coughs, sneezes, hiccups, and the sounds of something happening live is a rare and special treat.
Forbes found that Tiny Desk Concerts can even beat out major network stars like Stephen Colbert or Jimmy Fallon, neither of whom are strangers to producing hugely popular viral videos, on online video engagement metrics.
The magic of the Tiny Desk is that it creates unique experiences for the performer and the spectators alike. Both feel a part of something uncommonly authentic and personal, creating connections that normally couldn’t form in just a three-song mini-concert. The lesson it teaches us is that creating an amazing experience doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive, it just has to tap into something important or real.