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Behind the Tiny Desk: Exclusive look at how 88Nine filmed musicians for NPR’s talent search

88Nine Radio staff volunteered to help 10 local bands and solo artists record a song to submit in the NPR Tiny Desk Contest, and the Milwaukee Independent documented the March 30 video sessions.

2019 marks the 5th Tiny Desk Contest by National Public Radio. Even though there is only one grand-prize winner each year, many artists who submit entries get featured on NPR Music’s All Songs Considered blog and gain national exposure.

To enter the nationwide competition, musicians must create a new video that shows their performance of an original song at a desk. That requires not only a proper location, but resources to produce a video with good sound quality.

88Nine Radio Milwaukee (WYMS-FM 88.9) has focused on supporting Milwaukee musicians since its 2007 launch. The station’s programming team understood what a technical challenge it could be for local artists to participate in the contest, and offered to curate 10 video sessions. The selection process focused on representing the variety of Milwaukee’s music scene.

Award winning filmmakers Laura Dyan Kezman and Vianca Fuster produced the features, with Lodi Broekhuizen as the sound engineer. Music Director Justin Barney’s desk at 88Nine was used as the Tiny Desk location.

“The highlight for me was really how grateful the artists were about us shooting their Tiny Desk auditions. It was cool to use our craft of video to uplift artists and give them a shot to perform on a national stage – or desk,” said Vianca Fuster, Multimedia Producer at 88Nine. “Lauryl Sulfate + Her Ladies of Leisure was awesome. They were our second to last performance and I wasn’t familiar with their work, but their performance was super energetic and dope.”

There is nowhere to hide at Tiny Desk, no elaborate rigs or electronics. Hosted by Bob Boilen, the shows are recorded and then posted to YouTube and NPR Music’s website, attracting millions of views.

For a generation exposed to online manipulation, Tiny Desk is not so much a music show as it is a drive for authenticity. The appeal of the performance is due to the special intimacy that captures a stripped-down performance with all its imperfections, not a heavily produced studio track.

“Each year the contest inspires musicians to get together with their friends and make something. It’s wonderful to receive all these unique creations and witness how the community has grown,” said Boilen in a statement.

The inaugural performance began as a bit of a fluke. In 2008, Boilen ran into an fairly unknown musician named Laura Gibson at the South by Southwest music festival. He invited her to play a gig at NPR’s DC office. Gibson showed up a few weeks later. Boilen cleared some space on his desk, grabbed a microphone and a camera, filmed a completely raw performance, and put the video online. It became a hit with the public.

Performances at the 88Nine sessions included included Father Sky, Matthew Davies, Neidhoefer, Zed Kenzo, Camb, Saebra & Carlyle, Fox Face, Klassik, Lauryl Sulfate + Her Ladies of Leisure, and Ms. Lotus Fankh.

This video is a short behind-the-scenes compilation of all 10 artists while they were filmed at the desk of Justin Barney, 88Nine’s Music Director, with select highlight photos of the production process.

“This year, I was blown away by the Tiny Desk Contest entries I saw. We received over 6,000 entries from all across the country. We saw tiny desks up on rooftops and down on a subway platform; tucked into treetops, pickup trucks and laundromats. We heard songs about the situations that make life difficult and the people that make life worth living. But in the end, the judges and I could only choose one winning entry. We’re so proud to share with you the music of Quinn Christopherson, this year’s Tiny Desk Contest winner.” – Bob Boilen, NPR

Lee Matz

About The Author

Lee Matz

Former Creative Director and Photojournalist for the Milwaukee Business Journal, Lee brings his years of international experience as an award-winning foreign correspondent in Asia and Europe. Lee proudly uses MCTS as the exclusive mode of transportation for covering all his news reports.

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