I love the NPR Tiny Desk Concerts. I watch them religiously. As a musician, listening is every bit as important to me as playing, and much of my listening time is devoted to discovering new acts and revisiting the ones I love through this quirky, intimate medium. The series even shows up in an old lyric of mine: "I don't need more to anchor me/ than NPR and a cup of tea" (off Maps and Globes). By NPR, I meant the Tiny Desk. So you can imagine how excited I was last year, when the first ever Tiny Desk Contest was unveiled. Serious dream-journal material.
I spent a few days brainstorming ideas and cobbling together camera and sound equipment. Since I live in a restored schoolhouse, I happened to own an antique student desk (the kind with the chair bolted on). It took some elbow grease to get it to move so that I could fit behind it with a guitar, but ultimately we made it work. I clipped a GoPro to the inkwell and hit record. I won't be doing that again this year.
But there are a few reasons why I won't be submitting this year. First, the interest generated by last year's contest was clearly far beyond the imaginations of its creators, and I'm sure it's scaled even higher this year. As a fan of Tiny Desk, I think this is absolutely great. As a deeply under-the-radar writer of mostly simple, heartfelt songs, I'm not sure this contest is the best medium for my material. Sitting or standing behind a desk is, at its heart, a gimmick, and like all gimmicks, it lends itself only to escalation. You want a video of me performing behind a tiny desk? Let's put the desk on a boat, or ride the desk, or play the desk!
Don't get me wrong: I don't think all gimmicks are bad. There's nothing wrong with a musician or band using gimmicks that serve them and show off their creativity or sense of humor. It's just that this particular game of escalation doesn't work well with my earnest little songs. For me, the decision not to participate is about self-knowledge and self-selection.
But there's another, larger reason why I won't participate this year. There is a huge industry capitalizing on the aspiring musician, desperate for exposure. What's more, the prevailing advice for emerging artists is to leap at every opportunity and bark up every tree. We're being encouraged, again and again, to jump through hoops, participate in gimmicks, and often pay application fees (note: the Tiny Desk Contest is free, but many out there are not), putting ourselves and our art on the line to win or lose something at the hands of a far off panel of judges. This arrangement plays to our lower instincts: the dream of being "discovered" rather than the work of building a community.
I'd rather put myself on the line in front of a room of strangers, hoping that over the course of an evening, something I sing will have meaning for someone in that room. I'd rather put myself on the line playing the best show I possibly can, hopefully creating a night that someone remembers for a long time. Even if the room is small, or mostly empty, or noisy, I won't leave that evening feeling like I lost anything. Instead, I'll feel like I gave something: an offering freely given.
It feels good to offer ourselves up, even if it's scary. It doesn't feel good to jump through the hoops and hustle for the attention and approval of the "gatekeepers." It also doesn't feel good to watch someone doing that, and people can quickly sense the difference. I imagine most folks, including the gatekeepers, end up paying more attention to the people who are working hard to offer up their best. After all, most of the people who end up sitting behind that tiny desk didn't have to participate in a contest to get there. What did they do instead?
This year, I'm going to take the time I would have spent plotting out my video, setting up equipment, recording takes, ransacking the house in search of blank SD cards, and editing until my eyes bleed, and do something different with it. I'm going to focus on getting this new album finished and into your hands, tinker with some new songs, and brush off some old ones. I'm going to write out some charts, learn something new on my guitar, and get some shows on the calendar. In short, I'm going to do the work necessary for me to offer up my best.
And just to be clear, this is not an indictment of this contest or any and all competitions -- just my personal take this year. I'm still gunning for that Tiny Desk in the long game.