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NPR's Bobby Carter talks 2024 Tiny Desk Contest

A graphic from NPR Music about the 2024 Tiny Desk Contest, which is open until Feb. 21, 2024. The graphic reads "Big dreams start in tiny places."
It's the tenth anniversary of NPR's Tiny Desk Contest.

NPR's Tiny Desk contest has just embarked on its tenth year! North Carolina has not yet made it to the circle of champions. But we're hoping to change that this year. WHQR's Nikolai Mather caught up with Bobby Carter, who leads the Tiny Desk contest team at NPR. Here's what he had to say.

Nikolai Mather: Hi Bobby! So, it's been 10 years since the Tiny Desk Contest first started. Let's begin by discussing its evolution. What stands out to you?

Bobby Carter: So we've been in business, like as far as the contest goes, we're celebrating 10 years. But for the concert itself, we've been in business for 15 years. Now, the great thing about being and having so many shows for 15 years is that you have so many reference points on how to do the Tiny Desk the right way, how to do it the wrong way, what hasn't been done. So it's just great to see like, a show like Fred again.., where he's playing instruments that we've never seen him play before. Or if you see Sampha coming back, and his band huddling around a drum, with so much percussion. So that's, you know, the thing that I love most. It's that people are really, really challenging themselves to do something new in our space. That's the most fun.

NM: So the requirements for this contest are pretty clear. You have to be an undiscovered artist in the U.S. or its territories, you have to perform your own song, and you have to do it at a desk. But you mentioned that factor of people thinking outside of the box. What makes the contestants stand out to the judges? What kind of sound are y'all looking for?

BC: You know, it's so hard to describe. And I always say: I'm looking to evoke some sort of emotion. And that's usually through some powerful talent. It could be something that makes me laugh, something that makes me cry, something that reminds me of the past, or it could be anything. But you know, you know when you see and you hear it. If you look at our winners in the past, they all just have that special thing that you just cannot necessarily vocalize or pinpoint. But you know, it's unlike anything else that you've seen or heard. That's what we're looking for. We're looking for something different. We're looking for something to blow us away.

NM: So this is a question from a couple of our listeners. Wilmington has a pretty interesting hardcore scene. And a couple people have approached me asking whether they would be considered for submission. And that got me thinking about genre. How do y'all approach more controversial types of music — like country or noise or techno — when you judge this competition?

BC: We welcome that. We are looking to be challenged. We always challenge the artists. As it pertains to genre? There's no genre that can't be really highlighted at the desk. And hardcore is one of them. We have a resident hardcore aficionado at the Tiny Desk and on NPR music named Lars Gotrich and he's always pitching metal and hardcore. There's a certain degree of adjustment that we have to make for the desk, because you can't play loud, you know. So you have to take that loud sound and make it soft. But there's a way to do it, if we put enough thought and effort into it. Any genre can fit behind that desk.

NM: So Tiny Desk, it's not synonymous with acoustic, it's just synonymous with good, interesting music.

BC: And intimate. That's right.

NM: That's right. All right, Bobby, anything else you want to share?

BC: Just want to encourage, like I said earlier — if you're on the fence about performing, I know it takes a lot to put your art out there to literally be judged. But I think this contest is the best out there because we want to help someone make the transition into a real career in music. You know, success is relative and you know, dependent on what you want out of music. But I think that to actually make a living making music is a dream for so many. And I think the contest is going to help that become a true thing for somebody out there. So please, please, please apply.

NM: Folks, you heard it here first! The 2024 Tiny Desk contest is open for submissions through February 21 2024. Go to tinydeskcontest.npr.org for more information. And thanks for coming by, Bobby.

BC: It was great talking to you, Nikolai.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.