Gold Star For The Internet: NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts

In my travels across the Internet, I stumble upon many gems that when I see them, I wonder where they’ve been the whole time. One of these gems I want to share is NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts.

Back when I had a much longer commute, I loaded my phone up with as many podcasts about art and pop culture as I could to pass time that was otherwise dead. In trying to find more shows about music, I discovered Tiny Desk Concerts on my phone’s podcast app. Bob Boilen, the guy who started NPR’s All Songs Considered, hosts a range of musical performances at his desk at the NPR offices. You can read more about Boilen here.

The first Tiny Desk concert I watched was its 500th episode a few months ago. It happened to feature one of my favorite bands, The Arcs, which initially hooked me — if the program was featuring an act I really liked, there was probably more where that came from. I don’t watch every episode that pops up on the feed, but if it sounds like something I’d be interested in I usually end up loving it. The standard set seems to be about three songs, which ends up being a 11-20 minute video. I like that I have to sit down and carve out time to keep up with the episodes.

I’m a big believer in the power of the live music experience, and highly suggest that if you love a band you need to go see it perform — recordings are incredible, but you can’t replace the emotional experience of going to a concert. The only exception to my suggestion is now Tiny Desk, mostly because of how high the production values are. In my honest and humble opinion, the cinematography rivals Oscar-winning movies. The cinematography is varied enough so that you see shots like close ups of hands on pianos — which are always beautiful — as well as the overall configuration, as if you were standing right in front of the artists along with the office audience. Even though these performances are shot in an office space and sometimes unplugged, the sound is great. And when you go to look up a band to find their recordings, you’ll have how they looked in the back of your mind.  These videos add to the overall experience of a particular band’s music, and I think that’s wonderful.

As much as I have tried, I’ve never been an NPR groupie. I promise you don’t have to be one to enjoy Tiny Desk Concerts.

My favorite episodes have been the Arcs, Benjamin Clementine, Monsieur Periné, Timber Timbre, Reggie Watts and the Bots. I had seen the Bots in concert before watching their episode, and thought they did an incredible job translating the power and layers of their music into an intimate setting. When I saw the Arcs last week in a crowded and tiny venue, I was extra hyped because of their Tiny Desk performance. I’ve always wanted to see Timber Timbre, and now I really really want to. Even though these videos were my first introductions to Benjamin Clementine and Monsieur Periné, I had some real “whoa” moments that added them to my must-see list. For whatever episode you decide to watch, I think you’ll have the same reactions. In scrolling through the list of 500+ shows, I’ve found even more that I want to look at.

What I really love about Tiny Desk Concerts is that it celebrates incredible music, and uses the digital platform to share performances that most people wouldn’t get to see elsewhere. When I watch a Tiny Desk concert, I feel like it’s just me, the performer and an audience that just happens to be in the background. That’s a really special experience, even if it is being facilitated by a screen. And most importantly, it has introduced me to new artists and sounds that I wouldn’t have found without it.  And for that, I give it the biggest gold star in the world.

Do you watch Tiny Desk Concerts, or have an Internet gem you want to share with me? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Think Tank: Concert Tickets and the Price of Art

I have been a big fan of the Arctic Monkeys since I was 12 years old. I listen to all of the music, attend their concerts when they come to Los Angeles and read any articles or interviews about them. I love their discography for many reasons, but I will always tie memories and feelings about my youth to their music. Think about the band that you loved during your adolescence, and you’ll know exactly how I feel about the Arctic Monkeys.

When I found out that frontman Alex Turner’s side project, The Last Shadow Puppets, was going to release a new album and go on tour, I decided that I was going to buy a ticket and go to the LA show. The new single, “Bad Habits,” was really catchy and I wanted to experience the band live. I found out there was a ticket presale — Thursday at 9 a.m. — so I marked the time down on my calendar and waited. At 8:50 a.m. on Thursday morning, I opened the link to the ticket website, entered my presale code and filled out all of my information. So far, so good.

At five minutes before the official opening, the website took me into the virtual waiting room where I could purchase my tickets. At 9 a.m., my web browser refreshed to show me where there were available seats — except that there were none. 

I was really surprised that the show sold out within the first minute, and I thought that maybe the presale had only released a finite amount of tickets. The venue, the theatre at the Ace Hotel, is also not that big. I thought I’d try again during the general sale, but I didn’t have any luck in that round either.

I was immediately curious about why this show — one where the band is really not that well known compared to Turner’s main project — sold out so quickly, because I’d never had this much trouble buying tickets for a concert. I quickly cruised through Stub Hub to see if there were any tickets for sale, and there were — marked up astronomically high. (The most expensive ticket for this show in the regular sale was about $50 excluding fees, but Stub Hub’s resale prices were between $115 and $250 a piece.)

This experience made me think about, for the first time, the commercial aspect of being a fan. This resale practice for concerts and sporting events is commonplace, and these resellers make money off of capitalizing on the fan’s desire to go to events. The profit never makes it back to the musicians, athletes or the staff that put on these events. Something like Stub Hub is legalized ticket scalping for the people who buy eight or 10 tickets to resell immediately, and I don’t know why we as a society have allowed it.

General ticket prices these days are insane, which I have to believe is linked to both a Coachella and a streaming music effect. The first Coachella ticket was only $50 per day in 1999, but weekend tickets for the 2016 festival are going for close to $500. Not only have the headliners gotten bigger, but so has the festival’s cultural pull. I’m not the first person to make this observation, but many people go to these shows and festivals just to say that they were there. This demand for tickets drives overall prices up (#capitalism), which makes going to these events a serious economic decision. Plus, people aren’t buying physical albums like they used to and are turning to Spotify where they can listen to just about anything for a small monthly fee. This kind of cultural shift has a trickle down effect in how artistic industries approach business, whether that’s music or film or television. Adele and Taylor Swift have made headlines for removing their catalogs or being highly selective about streaming services, and while neither woman seems to be hurting for money, they’ve certainly made a statement about the cultural value of what they make.

I am most concerned with and interested in how our society commodifies art, and how things like concerts, films or exhibits have become more about the business than the significance of a culturally-shared experience. Think about it: the average movie ticket is close to $10, and you can easily spend $20 for admission to a museum and a special exhibit. This is a different conversation for a different day, but the price of art is also tied to accessibility, class structure and racial and gender representation. And while life continues to get more and more expensive and more and more complicated, we have to decide where to draw the line between compensating the artist and making the art available to all.

Look — I will pay for a copy of an album. I will buy the merchandise. I will pay for a concert ticket. I am 100 percent for the people involved in the art getting paid what they deserve for contributing to our culture, and I truly want to be able to support the artists I love. What I am not for, however, is this business that hikes up prices and shuts people out of seeing something that is deeply meaningful to them. At what point do we value profit over artistic experiences?

What do you think? Let’s talk about it in the comments.