As 2023 Tiny Desk Contest launches, NPR's Bob Boilen and Bobby Carter reflect on nine years of music discovery
From Fantastic Negrito and Tank and the Bangas to last year’s winner Alisa Amador, NPR’s Tiny Desk contest has elevated hundreds of musicians to new heights and connected thousands with new fans. The contest is back, and WFAE’s Program Director Eric Teel caught up with Tiny Desk creator Bob Boilen and contest judge Bobby Carter to talk about this year’s event and Charlotte’s musical persona.
Eric Teel: Bob Boilen, Bobby Carter … guys, nine years into this contest. What has been the biggest surprise for each of you?
Bob Boilen: Bobby, do you want to go first?
Bobby Carter: Well, it’s not so much a surprise but just a delight to see where the contest has gone, how it’s grown. We get thousands of entries every year so people are still excited to get their entries out there. Looking at our past eight winners, just looking at the wide, the range spans, you know? So it’s not so much a surprise, but just a delight that people are still very excited about the contest.
Boilen: And the creative talent in this country is astounding! I mean, there is so much talent out there.
Teel: Even outside of the yearly contest, you are likely listening to hundreds, if not thousands, of songs from hundreds and hundreds of artists. What are you looking for? What is that intangible quality that identifies someone in your ears as a potential star?
Boilen: I like the moment when I go “Whoa! I need to share that with somebody!” and that’s sort of the magic. And look, there’s no right or wrong in those reactions. They’re gut level. I always hope to see and hear those moments.
Carter: I still, after 44 years of listening to music, it just … to know that that can still happen. That music can still pull something out of you in any given moment. That’s what you look for in music.
Teel: Over the last few years, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the music world, and it has had an impact to some degree on this contest as well. The indie world especially got a lot more enlightened in terms of technology — recording, producing and sharing with fans. Do you think we're going to see a significant sea change in how stars are made and discovered going forward, as a result of some of those learned skills and technology advances?
Boilen: I mean, technology and music are intertwined, from forever. Technology and music both propel and change one another. This is going to be no different. I think that we learn and grow and create in collaboration in many ways with the engineers and designers who make the technology and I think that’s a very beautiful thing. I don’t think that live music is going away. People still love to see and hear music played and performed by an artist in real time, but there are other ways to make things and make music, and other ways to be presented with music. We live in a very creative culture and many, many tools to put that out there.
Carter: Yeah, and I think that those tools have not only changed the way people make music, but for me, I’ve noticed how we’re exposed to it … you know, an artist in their bedroom you don’t necessarily need a record label or a big machine now to get their music heard. You have Instagram, TikTok, all these platforms where a click of a button and thousands maybe even millions of people hear your music who’ve never heard it before. So I think the way we hear music and the way it’s consumed now … I think technology has really changed that for the better.
Teel: Here at WFAE we have been trying to raise the profile of this contest a little bit, and help encourage folks from around this area to get involved. In your experience, what makes a city a "Music City," and have there been any trends you’ve seen from Charlotte that would kind of enable you to kinda give it a characteristic?
Carter: I think Charlotte, I’m a fan of quite a few Charlotte artists, and then when you open up to just the state of North Carolina it gets even bigger, but there’s this young kid named Mavi who is doing great things in the city. Obviously, we had Anthony Hamilton at the Tiny Desk who represents Charlotte in a great way. You know, I go back to the technology topic where, I don’t know, like, it’s just a music world now when you really think about it. Unlike a Nashville or a Memphis … those roots run really, really deep. Technology has changed that — where I just don’t know if we’re ever going to see a “Music City” per se anymore. I believe Charlotte is a great music city. I’m always discovering young talent from the city. So, I don’t know what it’s going to take, and I don’t know if we’re ever going to see that again.
Boilen: Yeah, I mean … I think that, in the older days when you were there with your friends in a town in a music studio that everybody would come to, and you would integrate in that way and make music together, that’s what helped make the sound of the cities that we think about. But nowadays, it’s hard to be isolated and think of one particular sound, and one particular region.
Teel: So, Bob, this goes back to you, and the fact that your first answer in terms of where you hear music is live events. So … what is the significance and the role of a community’s venues for helping elevate its artists?
Boilen: Boy, I think that’s huge. And one of the things … I started in bands in the late '70s, and one of the things that happened all the time is that "three bands for three bucks" would happen. You’d see many local bands playing in a club at night, and all their friends could come, and they could see it. And all sorts of things happened. Interaction between those musicians happened. And live venues were what made a lot of that come together. You know, one of the things that Tiny Desk Contest could do in a region like yours would be if you put on a concert of, you know, five bands who entered the contest that are your favorites. And many times these bands don’t know each other and they live in the same city! So that’s an encouraging and wonderful thing to do.
Teel: Well, I know you guys have a tremendous amount of work in store over the next couple of months listening to thousands of submissions …
Carter: They call this work, man, c’mon! I’m livin’ the dream over here.
Boilen: Bobby, don’t give away our secrets!
NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest is now open. Entries are accepted until March 13. Rules and instructions are available here.
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