The Joys of the Tiny Desk Contest and the Serious Business of Picking a Winner

Bobby Carter and Bob Boilen of the Tiny Desk
"We take it seriously. And if we see something good, we're gonna pine for them and try to give them an opportunity," says Tiny Desk producer Bobby Carter (left) about the Tiny Desk Contest, which he helps judge along with Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen (right) and a panel of artists.

After a roughly two-year hiatus the world-renowned Tiny Desk Concert series from NPR Music has been back in in-person action, inviting both emerging and established artists for intimate, one-of-a-kind performances at the desk of Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen. 

And with that the Tiny Desk Contest has returned for its ninth year, offering yet another opportunity for unsigned, yet-to-be-discovered artists to submit a performance video and enter for a chance to play their very own Tiny Desk Concert at NPR Music and receive all the acclaim that comes with it. Past winners have gone on to tour nationally, headline festivals and win Grammys. 

Listen to the interview with Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen and producer Bobby Carter

The contest is back with a new panel of judges, many of them renowned artists in their own right. And, if you’re an unsigned artist, they’re asking for you to make a video. This year’s submission window is open until midnight on March 13. [Details here]

I recently talked to Boilen and Tiny Desk producer Bobby Carter about the return of in-studio Tiny Desk Concerts, what’s new with this year’s Tiny Desk Contest and the serious business of picking a winner.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So the big news is that the 2023 Tiny Desk Contest is accepting submissions. The contest is open to all unsigned artists. That announcement comes at a time when The Tiny Desk Concert Series has been rolling out lots of new performance videos, most of which you began producing as the pandemic has waned and artists are now out on the road again. It’s been great to see artists like Soccer Mommy, all the Black History Month concerts you’ve been rolling out in February — Lee Fields, Theo Croker, etc. — What has it been like, after some time away from in-person performances, as big music lovers yourself, to just get this thing rolling again?

Bob Boilien: It’s so good to see people playing music just a few feet from your face and your ears and seeing a crowd of people watching and reacting to music. You mentioned Soccer Mommy. She was the one who was to come in around March of 2020 when we all got that note: “Hey, we might be out of the office for a couple of weeks.” Turned into a couple of years. And so I wrote and asked her, I said, “Hey, you’re not on tour and you’re not able to come into the office,” back in March of 2020. “Would you do something at home?” And she was the first home concert of like 350 we were about to do, which we had no idea. And then it was such a thrill for Sophie Allison, Soccer Mommy, to come and perform in front of humans.

Bobby Carter: The key word is feeling. And there’s been a couple times early on when we got back into the office where we were reminded of that feeling we get when an artist is performing and just spilling their soul out behind the desk and Bob and I look at each other like “I really, really missed this feeling.” Because we know how lucky and blessed we are to be in this position.

Speaking of artists spilling their soul behind the desk. Let’s talk about this year’s Tiny Desk Contest. I love to see the panel of judges each year. This time around, besides the two of you, there’s Sharon Van Etten, Albina Cabrera from the mighty KEXP, Baby Rose, Sudan Archives. I’m curious about the judging process. No doubt, it’s a herculean task to watch all those videos, but then to narrow the entries down. Are there passionate debates? Do you all have to stump for artists?  What insight can you share about that process?

Bob Boilen: It’s all love [laughs]. It’s all love. We all hug each other all the time. I mean we all have different opinions about what we love and there’s no right or wrong. There have been years where it was like, “Oh my God, of course.” And I think Tank and the Bangas was one of those years where everyone was on the same page. But more often than not, everyone has different feelings and opinions and we all listen. After a meeting with all the judges, I will often go back and watch something again because there might be something I didn’t think about when I watched the first time, then come back in the conversation. So it’s a pretty cool process.

Bobby Carter: And we take it very seriously. I think that it takes a lot of bravery for someone to put their art out into the world and, you know, expose themselves to, in this case, thousands, millions of people. So we take it seriously. And if we see something good, we’re gonna pine for them and try to give them an opportunity. It’s a pretty peaceful process. But listen, there’s a lot of passion in that room.

Bob Boilen: And also one of the reasons we picked the artists we pick [as judges for the contest]: They are artists who have played the Tiny Desk. They know what it means and what it takes to be able to do something. And so when they’re watching a video, they have that in mind, which is really key because there may be some talented people out there that play something that would be hard to pull off, in a very stripped down sense, at the Tiny Desk. And so having that insight from the judges is really important.

And lastly, from North Florida last year we had a few-dozen entries. I imagine we’ll see more this year. This is really a life-changing opportunity, potentially. Can you talk about what some of the past winners have gone on to do? And also, talk about how, even if you don’t win, simply entering can open doors. Right? Many more videos, aside from the winners, get shared through NPR Music. 

Bobby Carter: Yeah, I think you start from the very beginning with Fantastic Negrito. He’s won how many Grammys, Bob? A couple Grammys?

Bob Boilen: I’m not sure how many.

[Note: To date, Fantastic Negrito has won three Grammy Awards]

Bobby Carter: He’s a Grammy winner. Let’s just say that. We have, who else? Tank and the Bangas? Obviously one of our most popular winners. They’ve been nominated for Grammys. And all of them have gone on to have a career in music, right? I mean, you look at Linda Diaz who just hit the road. Most of the winners, they’ve gone on to do great things.

And there’s going be a tour again this year for some of the artists that  submitted videos?

Bob Boilen: Yeah, and the tour is pretty cool because what happens at these tours is that we look at the city we’re going to, we look at the entries we’ve got for that city. We often will maybe talk to one of the local radio hosts or whatever about helping us figure out which are the best ones, and then four or five artists, bands will get up on stage in a given night. The community gets together, meaning that, fans of maybe particular artists will come and fans of another particular artist will come and all of a sudden in a room you have a group of people who probably don’t know each other. Each of the bands have not heard the other bands’ music. And it’s really this beautiful community affair that happens. We’ve seen musical collaborations come out of the fact that bands were on the same stage together at the Tiny Desk Contest on the tour. So it is a pretty cool thing. Then of course, the winner is on every one of those tour sites, and in addition to all of the other artists that we bring on stage to the cities we come to

Bobby Carter: In addition to the tour. We also try to get the entries that we each like, we try to get them out there. So each week, I believe, there’s gonna be highlights and videos that we like on our website, We’re also bringing back the Top Shelf series where Bob and I talk about some of our favorite entries with some of the other judges. So there’s tons of ways to get some exposure through the contest.

The Tiny Desk team will be accepting entries from Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023 at 10 a.m. ET. until 11:59 p.m. ET on Monday, March 13. Rules and submission information here.

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