NPR's mini concert series sees huge success

Over the years, some of the world's top musical acts have dropped by to record at NPR's Tiny Desk mini concert series. The performances are intimate, but the online following is huge, CBS News' Chip Reid reports.

For Lyle Lovett, playing three songs behind an office desk felt a little strange, and he's not alone.

"This is weird as hell for me," said T-Pain. "Never done anything like this."

Known mostly for his auto-tuned rap hits, T-Pain took to the Tiny Desk in October to deliver an entirely different kind of performance and quickly racked up more than seven million views on YouTube -- the most popular concert in a series created by NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and Bob Boilen.

"When people come in here, they're more often used to a distance between them and the people who watch them, and there is that distance that is gone when they come here," Boilen said. "Tom Jones -- nervous as could be when he performed here."

Boilen said Jones' son had to wipe off his sweat between songs.

"He held no microphone. He had no big band. There were no lights," Boilen said. "That kind of emotion that happens when they're doing something that's out of their comfort zone is both overwhelming to them and also what brings the best people to do the best performances."

The Tiny Desk series began as a solution to raucous concertgoers drowning out quiet singers.

Seven years and more than 400 concerts later, Boilen said authenticity is the key to a good performance.

"That's what we look for when we do these things; we look for something where someone owns their sound, nobody else could do it but them," Boilen said.

The series has now traveled far beyond quiet singer-songwriters. It's played host to groups with dozens of members and rowdy frontmen who've turned the Tiny Desk into a tiny stage, like soulful Alabama natives St. Paul & The Broken Bones or rap duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. They jumped on the Tiny Desk more than a year before winning four Grammys for their debut album.

Thompson said the venue's intimacy can restore people's faith in real music.

"People have this impression of musicians that it's all auto-tuned, it's all treated in the studio. People are very cynical about music, and we've had hundreds of artists come in and get up there without even amplification, let alone effects," Thompson said.

Boilen said while it's a unique concert venue, he's not sure it captures "the real thing" better than a typical venue.

Thompson said it's better.

The Tiny Desk has also served as a launching pad for struggling musicians looking to make a name for themselves.

Jazz rock trio Moon Hooch went from busking in the subways of New York City to playing at the Tiny Desk in 2014.

"Anyone who is into amazing rock, anyone who is into electronica, anyone who is into jazz would appreciate this. But they wouldn't know. They wouldn't know where to look. That was brilliant, right?" Boilen asked Thompson.

"That band was amazing," Thompson said.

Moon Hooch saxophonist Michael Wilbur said the Tiny Desk meant major exposure.

"I'm really grateful for it, and it actually has helped us a lot," Wilbur said. "I met this guy from Iran who saw us on Tiny Desk, and he was like super into it. He was like, 'I love your Tiny Desk.'"

But for Boilen, the series is simply about spreading his passion for music.

"That is the greatest gift I think I can give. I fell, you know, backwards into all of this, and the most amazing thing that I can do is to share the quantity of music that comes in here in a small way," he said.