Most unsigned bands and artists strive to one day play on big stages. Today, thousands of musicians are hoping for a shot at one of the smallest.
Now in its second year, NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest aims to discover the best new unsigned band, and its premise is simple: Set up at a desk (anywhere, any type), and perform a stripped-down version of one of your original songs. The idea is an offshoot of NPR’s very popular Tiny Desk Concerts, a series of intimate performances at the desk of All Songs Considered’s host Bob Boilen. The series has featured performances from Adele, Sylvan Esso, Leon Bridges, and countless others.
Last year’s inaugural Tiny Desk Contest was won by Oakland roots performer Fantastic Negrito, who beat out more than 7,000 submissions and earned the approval of a panel of NPR judges. This year’s top band or artist will win the right to play an official Tiny Desk Concert at NPR’s Washington, D.C., offices; be invited to appear at a taping of NPR’s Ask Me Another, and go on tour across the country with NPR and Lagunitas Brewing Company.
With the call out and tomorrow’s deadline (February 2) fast approaching, there is no shortage of applicants from Massachusetts. For many Boston bands, like American Echoes, Aloud, Strangers By Accident, and Nemes, deciding to enter the contest was easy: What was a means of discovering new artists can now be used for others to discover them.
“The hope for us is to become a part of their roster, and perhaps gain an audience that spans their listening demographic,” says American Echoes’ Nina-Alyssa Ganci. “We started as listeners ourselves, so the potential for like-minded listeners is higher.” Nemes’ Alex Gover agrees: “We are all fans of NPR, and have discovered some of our favorite new bands through their Tiny Desk series… it would be an absolute blast to win but quite honestly, we’re just excited to create.”
And having a vehicle for that creation is enticing.
“We’ve been writing a lot of new songs lately, and the question for songs like ‘Borderline’ is always – how do we get this out there?” says Brian Sousa of Strangers By Accident. “Even if we don’t win and get to tour and drink free Lagunitas, we figured people would check out the song, and when we release our record in a couple of months, people will check it out.”
For Aloud, the series is appealing because it strips away the static around a performer and brings the focus back to the music. Aloud shot their video inside a loft in South Boston, while American Echoes Band filmed theirs inside a 1960’s-style bungalow house in North Haven, Connecticut. Drawing on their submission’s song title (“Say A Prayer”), Nemes held court inside Emmanuel College Chapel in the Fenway, while Strangers By Accident utilized Sousa’s office at Boston College.
“Tiny Desk Concerts show you how musical a group is by making them adapt their songs to a different environment,” says Jen de la Osa. “No way to hide behind loud guitars and drums. You have to find new ways to bring out those elements of the song that are important to it without the arrangement you’ve become accustomed to. If a song is great it holds up in various fashions and that’s what I love about Tiny Desk.
And the goal here is similar across the board: to get on the radar of NPR, which has become a leader of new music discovery in the digital age.
“I respect what they do and I truly believe they love the music they promote,” says de la Osa. “We were lucky enough to meet Bob Boilen briefly last year and you can tell he’s genuinely enthused about music. He’s not going through the motions. These are people I want to be involved with. These people get it, whatever that may be.”
Aloud’s Henry Beguiristain says that the competition aspect is perhaps the least vital part of the whole process. “I’m not too concerned with the contest aspect, to be perfectly honest,” he tells Vanyaland. “If we win, that’d be great, and if the folks at NPR Music give us a pat on the back and a high five, I’d be absolutely thrilled. But I’m just as happy having made this thing and putting new Aloud music out there.”
Check out a selection of NPR Tiny Desk Contest submissions below, including American Echoes Band, Aloud, Strangers By Accident, and Nemes, as well as takes from Ruby Rose Fox, Low Key, Grey Season, The Whiskey Barrel Band, The New Limits, Matt York, and Honeysuckle, who are pictured up top.