Audie Cornish heads into the office for Tuesday’s broadcast of “All Things Considered” but slows down to hear some rock-and-roll.
California band OK Go is riffing away on a stake-bed truck parked in the NPR driveway and before she knows it, the radio host has been lured into a music video. While frontman Damian Kulash strums an acoustic guitar, Cornish schleps a bright orange crate labeled “TINY DESK” onto the truck bed and drops it at his feet.
“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.
According to Boilen, singer-songwriter Thao Nguyen summed up the experience best: “ ‘This was intimate and awkward, a lot like my last boyfriend.’ ”
But they always draw a crowd. An intraoffice e-mail goes out days before each Tiny Desk Concert, followed by an intercom announcement moments before showtime. On average, 60 NPR employees congregate. Bigger gigs draw more than 100, including a recent performance from British sad-rockers the xx, for which staff members had to cordon off the NPR Music office area with a velvet rope, making a drab office hallway feel like a nightclub sidewalk.
Elise Hu, a digital editor in NPR’s newsroom, is a Tiny Desk Concert regular. Josh Ritter played her first day at work. Steve Earle’s performance made her weep. And when she posts her Tiny Desk snapshots on Instagram (frequently) her friends get jealous (very). “It’s quite a work perk to be able to walk up to the fifth floor, walk down the hall and see the Decemberists,” Hu says.
With an April 15 moving date fast approaching, NPR Music’s office space is a quarter-packed mess. There’s lots of ephemera that needs boxing up, including a paper coffee cup once clutched by Lyle Lovett and the half-sipped bottle of Fiji spring water labeled “Adele 2/17/11.”
“We can’t seem to find Daniel Johnston’s cookie,” says Boilen rifling behind his desk. “It’ll turn up. Nobody’s gonna eat it.”
Back outside, OK Go is filming what must feel like take jillion of a kerjillion. “We do so many things like this that require us shooting over and over and over again, so it’s not an unfamiliar feeling,” says Kulash, during a coffee break. “Everybody’s in this really, ‘Can we do it!?’ mode.”
So back onto the truck bed he climbs, and after three false starts, the Ford F-450’s ignition va-vrooms on the one, finally allowing this rolling spectacle to swing a gentle left onto Massachusetts Avenue.
Oblivious pedestrians stride by. Bicyclists coast along. Passing drivers squeeze 2 and 10. Workaday Washington refuses to have its head turned.
But check YouTube in a month or so. Millions are likely to have clicked.