How COLORS Became the Music Industry’s Tastemaker

The Berlin-based YouTube channel is proving to be a major launchpad for new artists

nathan ma
nathan ma
Oct 23, 2019 · 6 min read
Image: YouTube/COLORS

In 1992, Mariah Carey’s management had a problem: The elusive chanteuse wouldn’t tour. Critics began to speculate she was coasting on in-studio support — that her dulcet runs and perfect pitch were musical sleights of hand rendered in post-production, and that her performance on the charts far outpaced her performance on the stage.

Her team booked her on MTV Unplugged, a series that challenged artists to perform on-camera in an intimate setting without the aid of a studio set-up. It was a risk, but one that paid off handsomely: her seven-song set was so popular that Sony released the recordings as an EP, which went on to be certified triple-platinum by the RIAA.

Intimate and candid, the recorded live performance is an act of authenticity for artists trying to prove their mettle, and one that has long outlasted MTV Unplugged. BBC’s Jo Whiley helped popularize the form with Radio 1’s Live Lounge in the mid-2000s, where artists put a personal spin on covers of popular songs live on the air. (The series continues today, with another host.) NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series followed soon after, with artists ranging from T-Pain to Taylor Swift performing on-camera while parked behind a tiny desk in a crowded office.

Still, none have proven as popular as COLORS, an audio-visual YouTube series recorded in a former East Berlin broadcasting studio on the outskirts of the city.

The project launched in February 2016. Since then, the studio has accumulated 3.75 million followers on YouTube, proving more popular than NPR Music (3.1 million) and BBC Radio 1 (2.1 million). Since its beginnings, COLORS’ principle has remained the same: a pared-down video production featuring an artist, a microphone, and a monochromatic backdrop. The videos are crisp, rendered in high-definition; the audio is mastered to catch every pop and crack of a singer’s rasp. Though the team considers itself genre-ambivalent–“All COLORS, no genres”–they lean slightly toward left-field pop and homegrown R&B. The audio engineering lends itself well to newer, greener talent whose voices can’t carry over a stadium sound system — artists like Atlanta’s Baby Rose, who racked up 2.6 million views on Twitter with her quiet but commanding contralto.

“I like the unplugged formats because it stimulates emotionality and technicality within the performance,” TOBi tells FFWD. The Nigerian-Canadian artist was the latest artist to take to COLORS, where he chose to perform an unreleased track called “Beige”. “Performing it on COLORS was an intimate and genuine experience because it brought out a vulnerable side of my performing style”.

Within a week, the video accumulated nearly 160,000 views on YouTube, but it’s hard to measure the true spread of COLORS videos: while their YouTube channel boasts a staggering 1.07 billion views in total, their videos come to life on Twitter, where they’re shared en masse.

For some, it’s a big break: neo-soul singer Mahalia found her major audience in 2017 after her performance of “Sober” went viral. The song had stalled upon its debut, remaining relatively unknown until she went on COLORS a month after its release. A now-deleted account reposted the video on Twitter, where it was shared thousands of times, and the song was quickly added to the soundtrack of HBO’s Insecure. “I’ve kinda been riding off of “Sober” for the past year,” Mahalia told Complex.

The video also boosted COLORS from a niche channel to a global stage: well-known and well-loved stars like Billie Eillish, Mac DeMarco, and Jorja Smith have all recently appeared on the show. COLORS is a destination YouTube channel — a URL SNL — with musicians flying from around the world for a coveted session in the monochromatic cube.

Whereas previous generations of musicians vied for late-night talk show bookings, today’s artists have a broader selection of media appearances to consider. Lil Nas X famously turned the industry on its head by translating a TikTok challenge into the longest-running #1 hit in history; Blanco Brown followed in his footsteps while storming the country charts. Others head to Spotify’s in-house live recording series in hopes of a breakout hit. But COLORS is uncompromising in its spot for breakthrough performances, and it’s reach is only growing.

For South African rapper Sho Madjozi, laying down a track at COLORS was an opportunity to try something new: like TOBi and a growing number of artists, she debuted an unreleased rap on the YouTube channel. Titled “John Cena,’’ the song caught Missy Elliott’s attention and quickly spread across the States and Europe. Elliott wasn’t the only one bouncing along to the catchy chorus: a month after Madjozi’s COLORS video, John Cena himself strutted out to her rap on The Ellen Degeneres Show.

Still, for a YouTube channel that’s quickly became one of the most powerful tastemakers in the music industry, the team behind COLORS is a mystery amongst Berlin’s tight-knit music scene. “I remember we first started asking around for DICE artists,” says Danielle Kourtesis, a veteran of the city’s scene and the Music Programme Director of Berlin’s DICE Festival and Conference.

“No one knew anything. Last year, a headliner asked me how to get in touch with them — we asked around again, and no one knew anything”. (Multiple people from COLORS declined multiple interview requests for this story.)

The studio itself is tucked away in Funkhaus Berlin. Originally registered as Colors Media UG in Berlin by Philipp Starcke in 2017, COLORS rebranded as Colorsxstudio GmbH last month, bringing its share capital up to €25,000 from €900 and adding Felix Glasmeyer and Jonas Weber on board as co-founders.

The trio is elusive: Glasmeyer’s career as a fashion photographer is more public than his work behind-the-scenes at COLORS, and Starcke (the team’s creative director) shies away from the press as well. Weber’s involvement in the project is more public: the former Universal Music Group executive is behind thirdculture, an incubator and investment firm with a focus on scouting and scaling projects like COLORS.

“We are building a portfolio of digital-native media brands,” Weber told an audience at last year’s WebSummit conference in Lisbon. “I just, today, heard that people still care about TV and other things, which is useless.

“Look at the audience–how many people, right now, have their phone in their hands?” he continued, gesturing to someone in the audience. “The thing is, this is where you get access to people, this is how you influence people — this is what you should care about.”

COLORS, it seems, is the face of a changing industry: one that’s moved from the television and radio to YouTube channels and streaming sites. It’s been nearly three decades since the first episode of MTV Unplugged, though network recently revived the format for a performance by Liam Gallagher. The recording was released on YouTube on September 27; to date, its view count hovers below 300,000 — a pittance, relatively speaking. The same week, COLORS invited Mahalia back into the studio. Now older and more confident, she worked her way through a song from her debut album against the same powder blue backdrop seen in “Sober” by 35.8 million viewers and counting.

“There’s not this one recipe that makes a star — that’s not how the world rolls, and actually never has been,” Weber later said at WebSummit. “People think thousands of things have changed, but I don’t believe that: the medium is a different one.”

nathan ma

Written by

nathan ma

Berlin-based freelancer putting the ‘cult’ in culture writer for The Independent, The Outline, CRACK, Time Out, and more: nathanashma@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

nathan ma

Written by

nathan ma

Berlin-based freelancer putting the ‘cult’ in culture writer for The Independent, The Outline, CRACK, Time Out, and more: nathanashma@gmail.com

FFWD

FFWD

Getting you up to speed with the world of online video

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