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Calling all musicians: the NPR Tiny Desk Contest is ready for your entry

The 2024 NPR Tiny Desk Contest is officially open for entries. KSMU's Jess Balisle spoke with NPR’s Bobby Carter last week about advice for musicians looking to enter.

Balisle: So this is a big deal for a lot of musicians – the Tiny Desk. It's something that a lot of people look forward to year after year. But let's be real, a lot of people enter this contest. We're talking, like, thousands, right?

Carter: Absolutely.

Balisle: The chance of winning is very, very slim.

Carter: That's right.

Balisle: For a musician, what's the perk? What's the benefit to them of entering this contest?

Carter: Lots. Lots of perks, lots of benefits. If you look at our history of our relationships with past contestants who didn't necessarily win - we've had bands play the Tiny Desk. We've had performances by contestants who didn't win the big prize. You look at Selena Moon, you look at Hobo Johnson, you look at DeQn Sue. I can probably think of five or six more bands who have played the Tiny Desk and did not win the big prize. And then when I think about the array of judges we have this year, from different backgrounds, perspectives, tastes. I think that there's an opportunity to be highlighted, once we do our Top Shelf program on YouTube, where each judge will talk about some of their favorite Tiny Desks. And, you know, exposure is key, especially when you think about how competitive the music industry is now. You just need someone to see what you're doing, and it needs to be amplified on a big platform. So, our social channels will highlight some of our favorites. We'll highlight some of our favorites on npr.org. We're hoping to put a spotlight on as many of our favorite contestants as possible, so there are multiple perks. And not to mention the community aspect of the contest. When you think about bands getting together from their respective cities, getting together, getting to know each other, getting to know their music, and oftentimes they collaborate with each other. So, lots of opportunity.

Balisle: So, a lot of people are going to put their eyes on these entry videos. It's not just, you know, not just you. It's not just a few people. We've got a whole array of folks that are looking at these giving their thoughts on them. I know, locally we're going to do a Tiny Desk Showcase, which is always a lot of fun. We've done that for a few years now. But for people making videos, what's your advice? We see a range of qualities in these videos, from simple phone recordings to fully produced music videos. What's your best advice for somebody looking to do that?

Carter: I would put the emphasis on the sound above the look. You look at past winners and the video, the video and the way it looks isn't necessarily the thing that we're looking for. It's really the sound. So, take advantage of the time. Take advantage, you know, rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Be sure that you're practicing, performing in an acoustic and an intimate setting. Just really, really perfect that. Take away anything that, if you're a performer, if you perform on a regular basis, on a stage, take away the monitors and the wedges and the in-ears and really practice hearing each other and playing softly. And think about, pick your best song, the best one you got. The one that evokes the most emotion. Pick that song. In this case, in 2024, this is your one shot to make an impression. So, with a lot of things, but specifically for the contest, put your best foot forward and really, really focus on really perfecting the sound.

Balisle: I like that a lot. That's super advice. You know, I think a lot of bands maybe overlooked that, if they're more of an electric-based band, you know, to really kind of strip that down and take it to, we'll call it the Tiny Desk roots.

Carter: Yeah. I mean, because what you get, you know, when you look at some of your favorite performances at the Tiny Desk, we don't allow any of that. It's one of the few platforms where we challenge the artist to take what they're used to doing on stage and doing a 180 with it. That's what we do. And you know, more times than not, we have the artist walking away feeling refreshed and wanting to try that. And they're able to hear themselves even better. I can't tell you how many artists have said like, “wow, I prefer doing it that way because I can hear better.

Balisle: Well, I know folks have until February 21st to get these videos in, so they have time to kind of craft their potentially new sound for the Tiny Desk.

Carter: Yeah.

Balisle: You know, something that's coming to mind when you say that is the one that you guys did with Sam Smith. Particularly with Unholy, because that's such an electronic-based song. And when they stripped that down to the piano and the choir, it was an entirely different song, and I think I maybe loved it more.

Carter: Bias aside, I agree with you. I think it highlights the amazing songwriting and you just hear the song. It's like a new record almost. So now you're able to go and you listen to the one that he recorded in the studio, but you can also go to the one that they did behind the Desk and it's like experiencing the song in a whole new way.

Balisle: Yeah, its two totally different ones.

Carter: That's right.

Balisle: And I gotta say, love them both. I really appreciate you taking the time to do this with all of these stations. I know this makes for busy, long days for you and probably repeating yourself a lot.

Carter: It’s a lot of fun. I don't mind spreading the gospel. I'm so excited for this year because this year, we're attempting to do even more for the contestants and the winners with our expanded judging panel and the opportunity to be mentored by an industry professional once they win. I'm more excited than ever because A) I think that we're going to get a fantastic pool of contestants, but even aside from that, I think we're going to be able to do something special with some contestants and the winner.

Balisle: Yeah. Well, I cannot thank you enough for what you do for musicians, big and small, all across the board. You guys really make it fun.

Carter: It's a blessing, Jessica. I appreciate that.

Jessica Gray Balisle, a Springfield native, grew up listening to KSMU. When she's not wrangling operations and compliance issues, she co-hosts live music show Studio Live and produces arts and culture stories. Jessica plays bass in local band the Hook Knives. She and her husband Todd live with their two cats, Ellie and Jean-Ralphio, and way too many house plants.