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Why NPR Tiny Desk is Still a Phenomenon

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This episode memo was brought to you by Payken.

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Today’s episode and memo is a deep dive on NPR’s Tiny DeskIt’s 15 years in and stronger than ever. But what does it have that sets it apart? How does it balance its focus on rising talent with the demand for superstar performances? I’m joined by Tati Cirisano from MIDiA Research.

You can listen to us here or read below for a few highlights.

a product built for the algorithm

There are few platforms that can capture the mindshare of a Tiny Desk concert. A stripped-down musical performance in NPR’s Washington D.C. office can create more buzz than an elaborate spectacle on a late-night show. In a world where expensive production sets are table stakes, Tiny Desk is a reset. It’s substance over style.

But there’s another reason that Tiny Desk breaks through: It’s a video product made for YouTube.

If you press play on any Tiny Desk video, the audio starts immediately as the opening credits roll in. There’s no, “Ladies and gentlemen… Olivia Rodrigo!” None of that. It feels like you walked into a room, the set just started a few moments ago, and you just found an open seat to sit down and tune in. That’s by design.

Each Tiny Desk video is around 15 – 25 minutes long. That’s a sweet spot for the YouTube algorithm. Videos that length have higher engagement so they get prioritized on the algorithm. That’s the same average length as MrBeast YouTube videos. Plus, videos longer than 8 minutes can have mid-roll ad placements, which can be quite lucrative for YouTubers.

It’s the complete opposite approach for most music videos on YouTube. In the streaming era, songs have gotten shorter to adapt to SpotifyApple Music, and the other DSPs. Short videos can generate tons of views—YouTube Billion Views Club is hundreds of songs deep—but while a YouTube view for a music video can generate direct revenue for rightsholders, a Tiny Desk concert view is likely more valuable for promotion.

Dua Lipa has the most-viewed Tiny Desk concert with 124 million YouTube views. It was a fun, memorable, well-timed performance that landed at the peak of COVID-19. The pandemic lockdowns were a welcomed boost of attention for digital content.

But Dua’s Tiny Desk show has around the same number of YouTube views as the music video for “Houdini,” a six-month-old song that has largely come and gone. For an artist at that level, a music video needs hundreds of millions of YouTube views to be considered a hit.

Usher, whose 2022 Tiny Desk concert helped him elevate to the Super Bowl Halftime Show, has 23 million views on YouTube. That’s less than a third of the views of a recent Usher music video that’s a relatively deep cut in his catalog.

Those Tiny Desk YouTube views carry more weight. They reach casual fans, boost streams for the back catalog, and reach The Recording Academy. And for NPR, the more reach for its programs, the more demand for NPR media, which increases donations for the publicly-funded non-profit.

You can listen to the full episode here or read below for more.

constraints breed creativity

Tiny Desk producer, Bobby Carter, has talked about the demand to expand the format given the popularity. From AP News:

“The things that keep me up at night is how do we maintain that while filling the demand?” revealed Carter, whose personal wish list includes SadeKendrick LamarJ. Cole, and Anita Baker. “(There’s) a lot of demand from outside sources to change it, to make it bigger … a lot of the challenge is to keep it tiny, keep it intimate when there’s so much temptation.”

But the constraints of Tiny Desk make it special. Musicians and their teams are forced to get creative given the space and limitations. As Tati said in our episode, a ticketed Tiny Desk concert would sell well but would throw off the vibe. The attendees are mostly NPR employees. When platforms expand beyond their focus, it can be tough to maintain their magic.

Look at Verzuz. Not unlike Tiny Desk, the vision was to celebrate artists and musicians in a unique format. But in a year and a half, Verzuz went from Jill Scott and Erykah Badu inviting us into their FaceTime-style conversation in May 2020, to Bone Thugs N Harmony and Three 6 Mafia fighting on stage at a live ticketed show with sponsors at the Hollywood Palladium in December 2021.

To be fair, the expanded Verzuz format also gave us The LOX standing on business against DipsetPlus, most of the artists who performed on that stage all saw their prices go up and were compensated when Triller acquired the company. The Verzuz effect was real. But as its status grew, it was tough to manage the egos, payment demands from artists, and legal issues with Verzuz’ parent company, Triller. It’s almost been two years since two artists went head to head in a Verzuz.

It can be tricky to navigate. Constraints are often a tradeoff, but talented musicians often find a way to stand out.

Listen to the rest of the episode for more on:

– how Tiny Desk balances rising acts and established stars
– times when Tiny Desk won’t move the needle
– what the future of the show may look like

Chartmetric stat of the week

21 Savage once said that a lot of people in Atlanta think that Future is bigger than Drake. Well, we ran the numbers. Drake’s monthly YouTube views in Atlanta are 3.3M (as of May 7) while Future has more than doubled in his hometown, with 7.5M views. But on Spotify, Drake has over 831,000 monthly listeners, compared to over 721,000 for Future. It’s platform-dependent, but it’s close!

You can listen to us here.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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