An In-Depth Conversation with Brandon Payano, COLORS A&R

“We’re just trying to highlight the best music we hear daily, and we care about putting the artists first.”
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There are few platforms, if any, that have had the global, cultural, and visual impact of YouTube channel COLORS. “All COLORS, no genres.”—the company’s mission statement—has helped the platform redefine what it means to discover new music. COLORS helps us enjoy music for the sake of its beauty. It’s part platform, part performance art, and 100 percent organic expression.

The Berlin-based company, founded by Phillipp Starcke and Felix Glasmeyer in 2016, has expanded how we experience music and art simultaneously, giving new and literal meaning to the theory of “seeing sounds,” a phenomenon popularized by N.E.R.D. years ago. As its name suggests, COLORS is just as famous for its pantones as it is for its performances. Each COLORS session tells a story inspired by the feel of each song. Everything aligns, from the color choices to the overall aesthetics of the artists.

As an alum of the Art Institute of Atlanta, where my studies included Color Theory and Art Direction, I’ve always had an affinity for the conceptual design of COLORS and the use of color and curation to create more than moods, but entire worlds. We can attribute these worlds, in part, to Brandon Payano, born and raised in the Bronx. The Dominican tastemaker is a music journalist by trade, and one of a handful of talented A&Rs at COLORS. Starting as a Content Creator working remotely from NYC, Brandon soon began contributing to the curation, coordination, and production alongside a small team of other talented curators, creators, and producers around the world.

“I think art is a bigger part of what we do—it’s why we do it,” Payano tells me. “The post-production team works hard on making sure they’re aligning the color choices with the overall aesthetic of the artists and feel of the song. A lot of it has to do with the music that’s being chosen and what the overall story is that we’re trying to get across.”

COLORS specializes in bringing together talent from all corners of the Earth into a beautifully and carefully color-curated space. This space allows artists to express themselves freely and tap into a broad audience of music lovers eager for something fresh and new without the burden of having to go out and seek new talent.

We had the pleasure of chatting with Brandon via WhatsApp about COLORS, curation, discovery, and how his background in music journalism impacts his work. Our conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity, follows below.

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DJBooth: COLORS is an international brand based in Berlin. How did you initially connect?

Brandon Payano: I’m Bronx-born and raised and have lived here ever since. I was always—like anyone seeking to get into A&R—scouring the internet for websites, blogs, platforms, and publications, putting artists [at] the forefront, and always [looking] to see what type of talent I could gravitate toward through this medium. It was within the first year that COLORS was up and running that I reached out to them, in the fall of 2016, asking if they needed any help on the contribution side of things.

At that time, I was a music journalist, so I had already been blogging and writing for smaller publications and blogs and was also curating my own playlists. I had sent all of those materials over to the [COLORS] team, which at the time was only about three or four people, and [we] kept in touch. I was genuinely a fan of the platform, and I loved the videos I was seeing [and] thought it was delivered in a nice and simple way.

It was the GoldLink video that had come out, and he performed a song called “Rough Soul.” I was a big fan of GoldLink at the time, so when I reached out to the company, it was on that premise. From there, I was brought on to be a copywriter/editorial intern.

What’s a typical day look like at COLORS?

A typical day for me with COLORS consists of just listening to a lot of music, and taking a handful of hours [during] the day to see what other people are listening to [and] talking about. Also, just visiting some of my favorite platforms, playlists, publications, and websites to see where the conversation is heading for individual artists. [Also] going through some of my emails, submissions, and DMs on social media just to see what artists are working on. COLORS, in general, and just explicitly being an A&R for a platform versus a label, has allowed for my network to open up tremendously, especially toward the artist community. 

How does your taste in music factor into what you do professionally?

[My personal taste] informs everything, to be honest. I’m discovering five new artists a week. Sometimes it’s not that much, but I’m usually passionate about pitching those artists to the platform. There may be times where not all of those artists get a chance to be featured [at] the current moment, but it plays a massive role in what I do and is specifically what I’m there to do: bring my tastes to the platform, so it blends well with everyone else’s tastes. There are three main curators for the platform, and we all handle our territories; myself in the US, another in London and Paris, and a couple persons on the team in Berlin. We’re bringing all our tastes together. Taste is important to the DNA of the show.

COLORS has been able to navigate both the untapped indie scene, often being the first to break new artists, while also featuring notable acts like Common. How do you maintain the integrity and quality of the brand through curation?

The reason we’re able to do that is there’s a lot of music that is just our main through-line from start to finish. This platform [has] become such a big magnitude, with [4.3 million] followers and subscribers, [and] has become a well-regarded and revered platform for up-and-coming talent. Still, we want to be able to give some of the more seasoned veterans in music the opportunity to expand their audience or just to be a part of a cool cultural moment.

For every person that’s coming and discovering the platform on behalf of Common, they’re also able to say, “Wait, what is this? Let me dive deeper into the discovery platform.” For every big, viral show we get, there’s an opportunity for some of the other videos which may not be viewed as much or may not go viral right away.

What have been your favorite episodes so far?

The Lianne La Havas video we recently did. Just amazing. [It’s] great to see her return to music. We were honored she chose to do this through us. She’s an amazing voice, so it was received well and something I keep revisiting as a fan. Outside of that, both of the EarthGang videos. I had a specific tie to those videos. Their team at Interscope is nothing but amazing, in terms of locking both of those sessions in and allowing for me to help see their vision and execute in a special way. I’ll never forget the first time I realized the impact of “Up,” when EarthGang first performed that. I was watching the Dreamville Fest live stream. There was all this excitement about it being the first Dreamville Fest. I’m a massive J. Cole fan, a massive Dreamville fan overall.

What are some of your favorite genres, outside of hip-hop and R&B?

To be honest, I’m excited about where jazz is at right now. There are a handful of artists on our radar we’d love to start showcasing more of. Personally, though, I’m excited to see more Afro-Latin music come out this year and am hoping that reggae/dancehall makes a big appearance this year. From an artist standpoint, there have been some key players that have started to re-usher in that conversation, so I’m looking forward to seeing how other artists within those genres build off that momentum.

Why is COLORS impacting on such a global scale?

Discovery! There is something for everyone on our platform, and we make that pretty known from a branding standpoint. We mean it when we say, “All COLORS, no genres.” We’re just trying to highlight the best music we hear daily, and we care about putting the artists first. That comes up in a lot of the conversations I’ve had with the team in the past, just making sure we stay true to that. We’ve also been able to give the same experience, with slight elevations aesthetically, year after year, directing our audience to the same place repeatedly for that content. There’s something to be said about that level of consistency while staying true to showcasing talent from around the world.

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