On Taylor Swift and Tiny Desk Concerts

I greatly enjoy listening to NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts. They bring in artists from all over the world, across all genres, and have them play 3-4 songs in their office, literally sitting at a desk. The artists are playing a more stripped-down version of their songs typically, as it’s reasonably-acoustic. Rarely you find more than a tiny guitar amplifier. They make it look as if it’s a single microphone recording everything, but it seems like the audio is too well mixed for that to be possible. One of my favorites (and the most-viewed one on YouTube!) is Anderson .Paak:

Often this is a big deal for the artists – much more so than the typical ‘radio show’ appearance while doing press for their tour or album. It’s not uncommon for an artist to express how much they love Tiny Desk concerts and how honored they are to be there. Frequently they are speechless, or stumble speaking between songs – probably they are just nervous!

Popular artists do come on Tiny Desk, too, although it’s more rare. Death Cab for Cutie has an excellent one, as does Sting + Shaggy. Artists are allowed to play Tiny Desk only once, with very few exceptions. Recently, Taylor Swift played a Tiny Desk concert:

I found this very interesting for a few reasons:

1. She obviously has much more stage presence than most Tiny Desk performers – it’s not her first radio show.

2. She only played 4 songs, but her Tiny Desk concert was substantially longer than average. A big piece of that was her stories between songs. After listening to it a few times, it’s obvious they were rehearsed; they’re probably the same stories she uses for parts of her tour, or other media interviews, or are being prepared for a future Taylor Swift memoir. However, the prepared-ness of the stories doesn’t mean they weren’t engaging and relevant. 

3. She didn’t have to come play Tiny Desk – it’s not going to be a career-changer for her, or sell more tour tickets. Her new record is already promoted everywhere, and most likely she’ll sell out tour tickets for at least another decade. 

To speculate about reason 3 a little further, it’s interesting how artists need to change as they get older. She’s been a pop superstar for over a decade, and many of her fans are now on the old side to listen to teenage pop songs. In many ways, the Tiny Desk audience aligns well with the audience she wants. They may not be the audience who comes to see her on tour, but they definitely might buy the album, or at least stream it a few times. 

It’s an interesting balance between authenticity and the need to have different versions of your message for different audiences. The Tiny Desk audience probably doesn’t value the same parts of her persona and music as the screaming fans who see her on tour. Ben Thompson, on a recent Exponent podcast episode was discussing this for his audience, too. He’s been writing Stratechery for about six years, and so has the need to appeal to both new subscribers and those who have read every post for six years. It’s a larger and larger challenge as your audience grows. 

In some ways it’s easier for Taylor Swift – she can give a different message to different media outlets, and they’ll bring it to their respective parts of her audience; Ben Thompson has his single outlet – the daily update of Stratechery. (Arguably, also the weekly public update, which goes to a different audience; his output locations are still limited.)

In conclusion, I found Taylor Swift’s Tiny Desk interesting because of its adherence to the Tiny Desk genre, but also its distinctive characteristics not found at other Tiny Desks. Give it a watch!