YouTube is a sprawling, imposing, and unruly place — a place where you can find the total breadth of the human experience, good, bad, and everything in between. It is a testament to NPR Music’s "Tiny Desk" that it has remained, for 15 years now, one of the consistently great corners of not only YouTube, but the internet as a whole. From humble and largely anonymous beginnings, "Tiny Desk" has become a staple of the global music community, leaving a significant cultural footprint, with Mac Miller’s 2018 session alone amassing over 101 million views. 

The last 15 years in pop culture have largely been defined by the seemingly shrinking distance between artist and audience, as social media allows fans into the lives of their favorite musicians in a way not possible before. While some platforms can feel highly curated, "Tiny Desk" remains a wonderful example of what can be accomplished when those barriers are removed, providing listeners and viewers an up-close view of their favorite performers. Careers have been launched, shaped, and wholly changed by the series. T-Pain dropped the Auto-Tune for a set and went viral; Anderson .Paak & The Free Nationals stripped away the bells and whistles of their typical performances and got back to their roots; Hozier took everyone to church long before he was a household name; Usher reminded everyone of his incredible stage presence and told the world to “watch this.” 

To celebrate the anniversary of the "Tiny Desk" series, which officially launched on April 22, 2008, Alternative Press caught up with some of the key figures in its creation, as well as some of the early performers who played behind the desk in the early years.  

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How It All Began

The idea for the iconic video series didn’t start in NPR headquarters — but in a crowded bar some 1,500 miles away.

Bob Boilen (Host of All Songs Considered and Creator of "Tiny Desk"): We went down to Austin for the SXSW music festival where most of the downtown area turns into music venues. One of the artists both me and Stephen Thompson, who also worked at NPR Music, were excited to see was Laura Gibson, a singer from Portland. 

Stephen Thompson (Writer/Editor, NPR Music and Host, Pop Culture Happy Hour): But when we got to the venue — a bar that’s still there called the Thirsty Nickel — it wasn’t set up well for live music. 

Boilen: Sometimes, with certain SXSW venues, the focus is not 100 percent on the music, and so her show happened to be on a night where a whole lot of people were watching a March Madness basketball game on TV and screaming and shouting. 

Thompson: The music needed to be way louder, before you factor in the fact that Laura is an extremely quiet singer. She was barely audible to us over the roar of TVs and "yahoos" and clinking bottles. A couple songs in, I was so exasperated that I said to Bob — or, more likely, yelled in his ear — that the whole thing felt pointless, and the next time Laura was in D.C., we should just have her play at his desk.

Boilen: He was sort of joking, but being a former audio engineer and a videographer, my brain nearly exploded. I thought, Oh, my god, that'd be so amazing. We should just film her sitting behind my desk in the office.

Thompson: We were commiserating with her about how rotten the concert experience had been when I blurted out something along the lines of, “Ha ha Bob and I were saying that when you’re in D.C. you should perform at his desk ha ha ha!” And she replied with the words that made the series possible: “I’ll be in D.C. in three weeks.”

Boilen: She was on tour with the Decemberists and a few weeks later, she came to Washington D.C. and, sure enough, we got out a single mic and a couple of cameras, which I then edited and put up online.

Thompson: The modesty of the set-up is all there in the video. Bob checked out a camera or two from our operations department and fiddled around enough to figure out how we’d shoot the show, and we got help from a sound engineer, who still does sound for us sometimes, and a videographer. 

Boilen: It was a fun idea. And the response was amazing, so it encouraged us to do more. 

The Very First "Tiny Desk" Concerts

Well before "Tiny Desk" was a household name, NPR Music worked hard to bring in performers from all over the globe to play their music behind Bob Boilen’s desk. 

Kristian Matsson (The Tallest Man On Earth): I grew up in Sweden, I wasn’t all that aware of NPR and All Things Considered. It was all new stuff to me, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

Thao Nguyen (formerly of Thao & The Get Down Stay Down): At that point I had not heard of "Tiny Desk." It was quite new. I don’t even know how many people they had come through at that point. 

Hozier: This was one of the first live sessions I ever did. Looking back, this is in the first handful of shows I ever committed to tape like that. I was very green indeed.

Boilen: By 2008, I had worked at NPR for 20 years. I had produced an awful lot of music stories for All Things Considered. Most of those stories would call for the artist to come into the studio. They would then stick on headphones and get behind microphones with big poppers in front of them and record a song or two for us. The studio was beautiful and the sound amazing, but what occurred to me was that what we were getting was a reproduction of the record. It just didn't seem like it was anything new or different for the artist, so putting them behind the desk was going to be challenging. 

Thompson: Bob is a sucker for putting people in settings they’re not used to. 

Boilen: Basically, we wouldn’t amplify their voice in the room. So, whatever they did instrumentally couldn't be louder than singing to the room because we wanted the audience, which was mostly staff at NPR, to hear them and not be dependent on the mix later on.

Hozier: I remember being quite nervous. It’s one thing to watch "Tiny Desk" and see the room facing inwards toward the performance and that iconic run of shelving and that iconic desk — it’s another thing to stand behind it and stand outwards toward an office of people. 

Thao: I didn’t quite understand that it would really be people working and that I would really be at Bob Boilen’s desk

Matsson: I remember getting pretty nervous. I didn’t know what I was walking into and it seemed like a big deal. I was sweating. I will see glimpses of it and can’t help but notice that I played the songs at, like, double speed. My adrenaline was just through the roof.

Thompson: It was weird and awkward, and you could tell it made some performers — including some big names — pretty uncomfortable. 

Boilen: Many of the tropes and things that help comfort an artist, like lights and a stage and all those sorts of things, aren’t there, so it is a bit unsettling — which I think is good. It’s a challenge to pretty much everybody who walks in that door. And we want to challenge them to do something different and not do whatever they might do in another kind of session. 

Hozier: No edits, no cuts, two or three songs in one take. I think you are brought to the artist and the artist is brought to you in quite a vulnerable way.

Robert Carter (Senior Producer "Tiny Desk" Concert Series): To me, one of the secrets to the success of the "Tiny Desk" is that not much changes. You are taking everything you are used to and flipping it on its head. It’s a real challenge. No matter who you are, big or small, this is going to challenge you. It is nerve-wracking. 

Matsson: Everyone was super sweet and super friendly, it was just that the whole staff was watching.

Hozier: Any element of it that was daunting and nerve-wracking was helped by the people, who were wonderful. Everyone in the office was so warm and so generous with their attention and concentration. We were made to feel very at home. 

"Tiny Desk," 15 Years On

The series has become a global phenomenon — a way for people to both hear musicians they love like they’ve never before and discover new favorites. For NPR Music, this is only the beginning.

Thompson: For years, I’d position myself in the "Tiny Desk" crowds in such a way that I could watch the artist and the audience simultaneously, and I’d absolutely revel — sometimes to the point of welling up — in everyone’s rapt attention. Those performances exist, and they’re so beautifully captured, and they exist forever, and people discovered music they love and artists they love and songs they love because we did this silly thing 15 years ago. 

Nguyen: It’s this ongoing juggernaut. Because it is such a force now, I think there are still people finding my music through "Tiny Desk." 

Mattson: I wasn’t aware back then, of course, about how long that video was going to stick online. I have heard of people finding my music through this video many times. I get happy when I hear people talking about that video. It’s wild that it's been out there for so long. 

Hozier: "Tiny Desk" has become a relic of very early days. I was still finding my feet, but I was hugely encouraged that people enjoyed listening to that at such an early stage when I still had so far to go.

Boilen: One cool thing I think is true, is that people become fans of the series. Yes, they may have certain kinds of music that they can't wait to see, but then a lot of those people will then just click to see what's new and discover, "Oh, I didn't know I like that kind of jazz," or "Wow, that’s kind of cool the way they do that." It's a series that hopefully opens people's ears and eyes to different stuff.

Carter: That is the most exciting thing at this point. "Tiny Desk" is a pretty big deal now. It is easy to grab the big name, the thing that everybody wants to see, but the thing that gets me excited nowadays is having an artist that no one has ever heard of and just being wowed and amazed and creating new fans of the artist. The discovery is so important to what we do.

Boilen: What I don't want is to do concerts because people will think it's popular. Echo chambers are not interesting. Most of the fun for me is watching an artist come in and do something when only a few people know it, seeing it continue to grow, and become a part of how they end up making it.

Carter: I lose a lot of sleep thinking about how we can stay fresh and keep it interesting and exciting for the audience. That won’t be just getting the biggest artist you can think of. 

Thao: It is not only the platform it has become for giant names, but also the way they’ve simultaneously — in parallel and quite thoughtfully — made it a way for unsigned musicians to share their work, become discovered on a grander scale, and establish really thriving careers. That is quite remarkable. 

Iconic Moments At "Tiny Desk"

Every one of the musicians and producers have their own special relationship to "Tiny Desk," which includes some performances they will never forget. 

Hozier: One session I have returned to a few times was Lianne La Havas. That is an example of what she as an artist can achieve with just a guitar and her voice. To strip everything else on the record away and all you're left with is this wonderful, raw talent and artistic vision that is executed so beautifully — it is lovely to be confronted with that. 

Thompson: I think Lizzo’s "Tiny Desk" is probably my favorite overall — that mix of charisma, vocal talent, humor, and joy. A few of the early milestones, like the Avett Brothers getting loud and Tom Jones plugging in and Adele in her gloves, weeks before becoming one of the biggest stars in the world, have to be included.

Thao: I loved Mac Miller’s session when Thundercat was guesting. I think it was filmed a few months before his passing. I return to that session all the time just because of the joy and musicianship is amazing. 

Thompson: It’s profound and sad that we got such a poignant and gripping performance from Mac Miller so soon before he died. 

Thao: Tank and The Bangas!

Carter: Tank and the Bangs was the first time I ever cried at a "Tiny Desk." The feeling in the room for that performance was unbelievable. It is cool to see what they have been able to do with that moment. 

Thompson: T-Pain going viral was a huge turning point for him and for us.

Boilen: People didn’t know he could sing like [that], but there he was challenged to do something without his usual vocal effects. 

Carter: When T-Pain came in, that completely changed everything. People were used to seeing him sing with Auto-Tune, so to strip that away was something really, really magical.