The rapper Kojey Radical at a COLORS Studios show at National Sawdust in Brooklyn in November.
By Andrew R. Chow
November 27, 2019

In 2017, the British R&B singer Mahalia flew to Berlin to record a song for a YouTube channel called COLORS Studios. The experience was a daze: “I flew in, did two takes, had some food, fell down the stairs at the airport and got home with a sprained ankle on the same day,” she remembers.

But soon after, her shows started selling out. “For a long time, I was on the same trajectory,” she told TIME. “After COLORS, everything skyrocketed: my Instagram, Twitter, Spotify plays. The fact I could finally announce a tour and sell out shows was just nuts.”

Mahalia now has 4 million monthly listeners on Spotify and major singles with international stars like Burna Boy and Ella Mai. And she credits that experience as being pivotal to her success: “COLORS was the moment that changed my whole career,” she told TIME.

She’s far from the only one to boast such a story. In a digital era in which artists use all sorts of techniques to stand out—memes, vlogs, dance crazes, lavish music videos—COLORS Studios has thrived through letting artists go back to the basics. Roughly twice a week, they post a video on YouTube of a song performed live at their studio. There are no gimmicks or special effects—just someone spilling out the contents of their heart in an empty monochromatic room.

COLORS, which began as a two-person start-up created by Philipp Starcke and Felix Glasmeyer in 2016, has weaponized simplicity to become a global tastemaker and a vital part of the music ecosystem dominated by major labels and streaming platforms. The channel racks up 40 million views per month and counts Gen Z breakout Billie Eilish and influential British grime rapper Skepta among its champions. Songs premiered here go viral; entire musical careers are launched. “For emerging artists, it’s the most important platform,” Mahalia said.

And in November, COLORS came to New York for the first time—packing two venues for live shows with an eclectic and impeccable collection of artists. The concerts proved the strength of COLORS’ brand, even in person—and signaled the potential beginning of a new high-profile and multi-platform era of the company.

But while the platform might be edging into rarified air—it’s in the top hundredth of the top percentile of YouTube music channels, according to the analytics company Tubular Labs—its creators are hesitant to move too close to the center. Their stubborn outsider mentality—which favors patience, quality, and a human touch—could keep COLORS a niche favorite. It could also result in the platform becoming a cultural touchstone—and a crucial antidote against a music era that rewards virality and groupthink.

The act of music discovery has radically shifted over the last decade. The days of record store browsing are eons gone; even the era of blogs being able to break an artist are solidly in the early aughts rearview. As streaming has devoured the industry, the easiest ways to quickly build a fanbase are through starring in a viral moment, getting signed, appearing on a Spotify playlist, or some combination of the three.

These changes mean that it’s also increasingly hard for independent artists to break through and make a living off their work. Major platforms are incentivized to showcase prominent artists; a huge percentage of streaming revenue goes to a small handful of superstars. Independent curators who can uplift the careers of small-scale artists pushing against algorithmic musical trends—termed “streambait pop” by the writer Liz Pelly—are few and far between.

The idea that COLORS could become a vital force amid all of these factors was a wild pipe dream. Three years ago, co-creator Philipp Starcke was feeling unfulfilled after having recently quit his job in advertising in Hamburg; he had a vision of combining his love of music with a clean visual sensibility that would cut through the noise of social media. “We’re all very easily distracted. We wanted to make it simple for people to watch,” Starcke said. “We wanted to connect people, countries and cultures on a creative and emotional level.”

He pitched the idea to his friend Felix Glasmeyer, a fashion photographer in New York, who immediately moved to Berlin to help him shoot the videos. Starcke used his own savings to rent out a dirt-cheap, tiny studio in the center of Berlin. The room was crummy, with cracks and spiders, and the pair could have hardly been less equipped for their endeavor. “I had no idea what an XLR cable was,” Starcke said, referring to the most commonly used microphone cable. “We had no connections to the music industry whatsoever.”

The pair was also entering an industry with a steep uphill climb. While YouTube’s early days were driven by independent creators, many feel the platform is increasingly prioritizing larger companies and more traditional content; prominent personalities have spoken out about the demonetization of their videos. “To get your content seen on YouTube is so hard,” says Allison Stern, the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Tubular Labs. “It’s especially hard to build a business in music: I feel like people have given up on it a bit from an innovation standpoint.”

The history of live music performance series on YouTube was also unpromising. NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts have remained popular through a sense of folksy irreverence for years, but many other smaller series, from Jam in the Van to Under the Covers, have struggled to maintain their view counts in a crowded market. Even more established outlets have declared defeat: the music magazine Spin disbanded their live sessions two years ago.

Given this climate and Starcke and Glasmeyer’s lack of experience, the first few months of COLORS were predictably rough around the edges. The featured musicians included friends of friends, the vocals sounded distant, the camerawork lacked dynamism. Every time the colors of the walls needed changing, the pair would paint the studio by hand.

But slowly, the videos began to take off, with the dreamy and vibrant space capturing the attention of curious scrollers who clicked on videos’ unique thumbnails. In contrast to other concert series, like the cluttered Tiny Desk or the handheld street roving of La Blogotheque, the look of COLORS is soothing and pristine. The vivid space, combined with the performers’ always-immaculate outfits, helped COLORS slide right into an Instagram age that prioritized clean sightlines and bold colorways.

One of the beneficiaries was the rapper Goldlink, who didn’t think much of the Berlin studio when he arrived there in 2016. “It was so danky and small,” he said. “It was in this weird, sketchy building—you didn’t know if you were there yet.”

A few months later, he was at a grocery store by his Virginia home when he was stopped excitedly by the manager. “He was like, ‘Oh my god, I saw you on COLORS. That’s the first time I ever heard of you—and I’ve been a fan ever since,’” Goldlink recalled.

The video—which showed Goldlink performing his song “Rough Soul,” playfully dancing and delivering his dextrous flow with ease—was a breakout hit online, racking up 14 times more views than the studio version on YouTube. “It would go viral every three months—and because of that, our live shows started selling out,” he said. Goldlink’s career and fanbase accelerated; he’s now a Billboard-charting artist and a two-time Grammy nominee.

As performances like Goldlink’s went viral, Starcke’s inbox began ballooning with thousands of messages from hopeful musicians. Painstakingly combing through these pitches, he and his team developed an uncanny knack for choosing bold artists on the verge of a breakthrough. A symbiotic relationship developed, with COLORS giving no-namers a boost, and those singers conferring back prestige and authenticity to the studio that gave them an early chance.

Perhaps the most notable example of this symbiosis is Billie Eilish, who was 15 years old and had just 35,000 subscribers on YouTube when she showed up in August 2017 to perform “watch.” “Nobody knew her. She came in with her parents, and it was obvious that she was an incredible talent,” Starcke said. The COLORS video was one step on Eilish’s meteoric rise, and a year later, the nascent global superstar returned for a rendition of “idontwannabeyouanymore”which quickly became the channel’s most watched video, with 100 million views.

 

The days of the original spider-filled studio now feel very far away. The COLORS team has expanded from two to 14; they upgraded to a polished and sunny studio with better equipment, which sits upstairs from the hallowed venue Funkhaus Berlin on the outskirts of the city center. Instead of booking musicians in their social circles, COLORS now gets requests from major artists—from Daniel Caesar to Common to Doja Cat to Gunna—many of whom will fly to Berlin just to appear on COLORS and use the platform to debut new songs. Last year, COLORS passed NPR Music—which hosts Tiny Desk—in total subscribers. And their views per month outpaces the numbers that MTV’s Total Request Live put up in its 1999 heyday.

“It’s mind-blowing,” Starcke says. “We had no ambition of surpassing anybody.”

But with this newfound prestige also come difficult choices. The competition on YouTube is vicious: name recognition is heavily prioritized, and any slight shift of the company’s opaque algorithms could lead to the loss of thousands of dollars in advertiser revenue. Since March, COLORS’ statistics have slipped from 13 million weekly video views to 9 million and below, according to Socialblade, a YouTube data-analysis site.

To avoid the fate of defunct concert series like Kinda Neat or the Spin Sessions, COLORS could have pivoted solely to bigger stars and made themselves a marquee space to rival late night shows. Starcke says that early on in their rise, COLORS was tempted to book acts for their popularity rather than their music.

“But we did it and it felt so bad,” Starcke said. He says that the main priority of COLORS now is not to grow, but to continue to share the music that they want to in the hope that the world will follow. “We want to give everybody the same chance and not look at numbers,” he said. “We would never jeopardize the trust of our fans.”

On a sunny Berlin day this summer, COLORS gave that chance to Swsh, a nonbinary neo-soul singer who arrived at the studio wearing a crisp white shirt and wonky drugstore glasses. Swsh had yet to record an album or even a music video, and were tense during the first few takes of their song “How You Feel.”

But the small group of employees at the studio quickly created a relaxed atmosphere: cracking jokes, plying them with shots of cachaca, a Brazilian spirit, even taking off their shoes when Swsh decides to take off theirs. “If there’s a feet smell in the air, we’re just creating a vibe,” director Jimi Steil told them.

Swsh settled in and delivered the sultry song with a growl, joking, “I might just stay here forever.” The video turned out playful and effortless, racking up a cool million and a half views. Months later, Swsh says that that her career has changed, with labels and producers reaching out far more frequently. “We did a show yesterday where people were singing along to my music—and COLORS did that,” they said. “It was like I was going to climb a mountain and someone was like, ‘here’s an escalator.’”

Committing time and effort to a small-scale artist like Swsh is a risky move for a company that has recently expanded its payroll, just upgraded its studio again and is looking to make a global impact. But it’s also essential to what makes COLORS unique—and could end up paying off. “There’s a huge amount of value in building a tastemaker brand being close to the pulse of what’s hot,” Stern says.

And the comment sections on their videos reveals a core fanbase, spread across the world, committed to the platform’s vision and the ways it has bucked the trends of the modern entertainment complex. “For real COLORS, where do you guys always find all those crazy talented artists?” reads one comment on the Swsh video. “Discovering new good music is one of the best feelings and COLORS is the best dealer out here!” reads another from earlier this year.

Having established its base, the platform hopes to continue confounding expectations even as they move onto new frontiers, like activism—they launched a series shedding light on the unrest and brutality in Sudan—and small-scale concerts. COLORS’ New York shows in November exemplified their approach—and their potential. Despite the relative obscurity of their handpicked performers—including Dua Saleh, Kojey Radical and Odalys—the venues National Sawdust and Baby’s All Right were both packed and raucous. The British rapper Kojey Radical, in particular, drew the crowd into a frenzy, leading singalongs and moshing across the trembling National Sawdust floor.

Despite the fact that this was Kojey Radical’s very first American performance, the atmosphere was intimate and familial, and aligned perfectly with COLORS’ digital presence; after his performance, he promised to stay and party with the crowd. And the next day, he took to Instagram to thank COLORS for the night: “Y’all are like family and I’ll always be grateful for the belief. The only thing left to ask now is where to next?”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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