“Can’t wait to see how it turns out,” Cornish says. “I have to go talk about gay marriage rulings now.”
This month and next, NPR is relocating from 635 Massachusetts Ave. NW to 1111 North Capitol St. NE — which means that one of Washington’s most-beloved music venues is moving, too. Since 2008, NPR Music, the branch tasked with introducing listeners to new sounds, has been hosting its incredibly popular Tiny Desk Concerts, intimate performances by big names amid sedate cubicles, filmed before an audience of NPR employees and posted online.
OK Go, whose members have roots in the Washington area, has never played a Tiny Desk Concert but knows the power of viral media, promoting its quirky rock tunes with stunt-laden
videos. To commemorate the big move, NPR Music called on the band to give a performance that would be filmed in meticulous, stop-motion-ish staccato at the old offices and the new — and on a truck weaving through the streets of Washington in between. (The video is expected to surface online in late April.)
The most popular Tiny Desk Concerts are viral in their own right. Performances from Carolina folk stars the Avett Brothers and a cusp-of-ubiquity Adele have each gathered more than a million views on YouTube. And that massive reach is emblematic of NPR Music’s continued transformation into a rarefied hype engine. Many in the music biz agree that the full embrace of NPR Music provides a publicity boost as potent as a booking on “Saturday Night Live.”
The desk itself isn’t tiny. It belongs to Bob Boilen, creator and host of “All Songs Considered” and founding member of Tiny Desk Unit, the Washington-based new-wave band that was famously the first band to perform at the old 9:30 Club back in 1980. Boilen says he and colleague Stephen Thompson came up with the idea after struggling to hear a hushed performance from folk singer Laura Gibson through the audience’s jibber-jabber.
Afterward, “Stephen jokingly said to her, ‘Next time you’re in town, you oughta just play Bob’s desk,’ ” Boilen says. “My brain just lit up.”
Nearly five years later, NPR Music has hosted more than 250 concerts from Boilen’s desk, including performances from Wilco, Mavis Staples, Phoenix, Tom Jones and Chuck Brown. Boilen can remember only three acts crashing and burning, never to be seen by the online masses. (He’s too classy to name names.)
That’s because a Tiny Desk Concert is a desirable gig but also a tough one. Musicians must sing into a single microphone, usually on little sleep, always beneath unflattering office lighting, often with NPR employees clacking away at their neighboring computers in the background, constantly aware that thousands will soon be watching from the other side of the camera.