Pros Do The Work: How NPR Turned A Bad Concert Experience Into The Tiny Desk Concert Series

Professionals show up and do the work, no matter what. Sometimes even the strangest of circumstances can lead to the most interesting outcomes. The story of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert Series contains not one, but three examples of pros being pros and what can happen.

In 2007, Laura Gibson had just released her debut album. She wasn’t sure if the musician’s life was for her, but people were receptive and it beat the odd jobs she’d otherwise be doing. She took her ultra-soft, acoustic set to the South by Southwest music festival that year. The festival features artists in every possible venue (many converted for the event) performing all over Austin. Her set, unfortunately, was to take place in a noisy bar where people had also gathered to watch a basketball game. The conditions were awful, but Gibson still performed. Maybe nobody could hear her, but she gave it her all.

In the audience that night were NPR’s Bob Boilen and Stephen Thompson. They had come specifically to see her and were understandably frustrated by the choice of venue. After Gibson’s set, they approached her and made light of just how awful the circumstance was. Boilen remarked that if he really wanted to hear his favorite artists, he should have them come play at his desk. He asked if Gibson if she would ever do something like that and she said what any amateur-turned-pro would say – “sure. Why not?”

Gibson’s decision to perform despite the venue is the first instance to notice. It was the wrong environment for her work, but she was there to perform, so she did it anyway. No drama, no diva – she did the job. The second instance to notice is that she agreed to Boilen’s half-baked idea. Even if it never happened, the opportunity to work with someone who had access to NPR’s audience couldn’t hurt. The worst-case scenario would be two strange performances instead of just one. She didn’t need a best-case scenario because she would keep working either way. Boilen’s desk couldn’t hurt.

About a month later Gibson was on tour in D.C., the home of Boilen’s Desk. They had since traded emails more about the concept and agreed to give it a shot. Boilen made an announcement to the staff to come to his desk that morning. A handful of people showed up, unsure of what to expect. That day, a lovely private concert took place in an otherwise normal public radio office. They filmed the set and posted it to their blog.

This is the third instance to focus on. Boilen didn’t know what it could become, let alone that they’d do more than 800 of these in the next 10 years. The staff who wandered over was confused but thought it was cool. The magic happened when the video went online and started to spread. It turned out there was an audience for this. Gibson started having people show up to see her explaining how they discovered her on “the Tiny Desk video.” Boilen and NPR decided to turn it into a recurring feature as an artist showcase. In the time it would become a beloved institution.

Without pros willing to take a risk and do their work regardless of circumstance, the Tiny Desk Concert Series never would have happened. Next time we’re in a situation where we’re thinking “why are we here,” or “is this what we actually want,” we should remind ourselves of Gibson and Boilen. Special things only happen when we show up and do the work. The future is unknown, and that’s a good thing. Today’s unfortunate crap could be tomorrow’s fortunate treasure. We never know unless we show up and do the work.

NPR’s retelling of the story on the blog and the podcast.