How Your Band Can Win NPR's Tiny Desk Contest

A screenshot from last year's Tiny Desk Contest winner, Fantastic Negritos' "Lost In a Crowd"
A screenshot from last year's Tiny Desk Contest winner, Fantastic Negritos' "Lost In a Crowd"

Sometimes, big dreams start from tiny places. This is the premise behind NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest, which is presently accepting video entries from unheralded music acts. The contest is an offshoot of the network’s wildly popular Tiny Desk Concerts series. Filmed at the desk of All Songs Considered’s host Bob Boilen, the series has featured some of music’s most interesting and talented acts, including Leon Bridges, Sylvan Esso, Kacey Musgraves and Houston’s own The Suffers.

The contest, which ends tomorrow, has only a handful of rules, but they’re specific. Primarily, it's for undiscovered talent, meaning acts that aren’t under a recording contact. You must be 21 years old and reside in the U.S. to enter. Your entry should be a new video of an original song you’ve written, and must be performed at a desk.

Last year’s inaugural competition drew nearly 7,000 entries, an astounding number that makes it clear how impactful your act’s video must be to stand out. That’s easier said than done, of course, so we turned to a couple of Houston video producers to get some helpful hints for contest hopefuls.

“Find a unique location and do your thing,” offers Humble Bee Media’s Juan Carlos Arredondo. “In the age of the Internet, anything goes. Don't be afraid to try whatever crazy ideas you may have that incorporate a desk.”

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Arredondo has been producing videos via Humble Bee for seven years now; his video portfolio can be found at arredondoarts.com. He’s also an accomplished visual artist and the guitarist and vocalist for Mumbai, his own musical project he describes as “Latin alternative gypsy rock.” Those varied interests give him some special insight into what the best videos might entail for the contest, offering his work on Adam Bricks’ “A Day at the Park,” as an example of an attempt to capture the spirit of a small performance in a unique setting.

“Capturing the moment, the location and the atmosphere is what I usually aim for," Arredondo says. "Here is a video that I captured featuring Adam Bricks at Tejas Boots's old location. The location had an old, rugged tone to it, which I thought was suitable for the chosen song. I tried to capture that while still having the video be about the performance."

Not losing sight of the performance is key. After all, music is at the heart of all things Tiny Desk. But fellow musician and video producer Justin Nava says that in this context, the video should clearly say something about the performer, too.

“Any musician can play a song, but what do you, as an individual, bring to a performance that makes it your own?" ventures Nava. "Whether it's a theme you give off or the way your performance comes across physically and how you physically convey the emotion of your song as you perform. This is not to be confused with a gimmick, but it's easy to confuse the two,” Nava said.

For Nava's example, he points to a video he produced for singer and performance artist Amanda Gregory. Here, what’s trying to be conveyed is overt, since Gregory is sharing with her audience the goals of her project, titled “The Human Cake Doll.” The key in music-video production is to clearly present the act’s message without spelling it out for them, Nava says.

Nava received his degree in media production at the University of Houston more than a decade ago, and has produced music and film projects for years under Nava Creative Services. Still, he’s probably best known to Houston music fans as the expressive front man and vocalist for thelastplaceyoulook. Whether turning the camera on himself or fellow area musicians, he has one important objective.

“I want to find that unique quality and showcase it, service to the idea of the song and the musicians who wrote it,” he says.

There’s low risk and high reward in participating. Last year, the Tiny Desk contest posted dozens of submissions ahead of announcing the winner, which gave many bands some good exposure. Recently, it’s been featuring some acts that participated last year on its blog. The ultimate winner will be invited to play a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR in Washington, D.C., will appear at a taping of the network’s Ask Me Another show and will tour the U.S. with NPR and sponsor Lagunitas.

We asked Arredondo and Nava to comment on 2015's winning submission, “Lost In a Crowd” by Oakland’s Fantastic Negrito.

“The fact that they are crammed in a freight elevator but still look relaxed is what caught my eye,” Arredondo says. “Not knowing that the premise is to have a table in front of them, I initially thought the table looked out of place. Now knowing that it's part of the contest rules, it makes sense, so I would suggest to make sure that the desk is in plain view.”

“Definitely, it’s the passion and the ability to convey that. The interesting set choice was also a nice touch,” Nava adds.

Full contest rules can be found here. Good luck, Houston acts — we hope to see desks of all shapes and tiny sizes soon in your videos.


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