Rediscovering Tiny Desk : The Grandfather of the New Concert Format

Arie Likhtman

Yesterday, I woke up, got dressed, and went to a concert. Then I put down my computer, went to Starbucks and went to another concert. After that, I put down my phone and went to class, with plenty of time left in the day.

While this may sound like an odd way to spend a day, this is the life of the 2021 music lover, and that’s largely due to one factor: the massive boom in the live-streamed concert industry. Overnight, concerts disappeared from the arenas and the amphitheaters, but like a phoenix from the ashes, live music reappeared on our phones, televisions, and laptops in the blink of an eye. While these virtual experiences could never replace the in-person concert, platforms like Instagram live, Twitch, and Mandolin exploded, hosting about a concert a day.

But the virtual concert is not a new phenomenon, in fact, this niche industry has been around for an entire decade, thanks to one company, NPR, and their revolutionary idea of the Tiny Desk concert.



The Tony Desk concert was created in 2008, a year in which I was in kindergarten and one that most of us can’t even fathom anymore. The story goes like this: NPR anchor and host of the hit show All Things Considered Bob Boilen was leaving a show at a bar and quickly became frustrated because he could not hear the band over all the noise. Boilen’s friend and NPR music editor Stephen Thompson joked that artists should just perform at Boilen’s desk. Boilen took this idea seriously, inviting folk singer Laura Gibson to do exactly this, and posting the video to the internet, and thus the Tiny Desk concert was born.

Tiny Desk Blows Up

This virtual concert format quickly took the music world by storm. In fact, As of 2018, Tiny Desk has showcased more than 800 concerts viewed a collective 2 billion times on YouTube. These concerts have featured artists from every genre, from pop icons such as Harry Styles, to hip hop stars such as Anderson .Paak., who gave Tiny Desk their most-watched video with 67 million views. These virtual and intimate shows allowed artists to showcase their craft without the interference of crowd noise, with millions of people tuning in online to celebrate the purity of music.


Tiny Desk and the Pandemic

Tiny Desk, as a veteran of the online concert, was quick to adjust to COVID-19, with Boilen swiftly launching Tiny Desk (Home) Concerts. These at-home concerts featured artists performing in their own houses instead of Boilen’s desk. These new shows featured some of the world’s biggest artists such as Justin Bieber and Demi Lovato. These concerts aren’t slowing down either with the most recent one being yesterday, featuring breakout Japanese-British singer-songwriter Rina Sawayama. The visuals range from intimate home settings to intricately staged sets that almost make you forget you’re not actually at the concert.


As we (hopefully) enter the home stretch of this pandemic and big artists such as AJR are starting to announce tour dates, it is important to give the music industry a necessary pat on the back for adapting so quickly to a public health crisis. Concerts didn’t die, they just moved from the stage to the screen. But we can’t pay homage to live-streamed concerts without the founder of this format,  NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. Way back in 2008, Bob Boilen figured out how to turn our attention to the best part of the concerts: the music itself. Even though in-person concerts are coming back and fast, for those who can find crowd noise distracting, Tiny Desk is here to stay.