Zarnaz Zandi, better known as “Zee,” is one of the Strip’s pre-eminent house music influencers. Almost 20 years ago, she moved from Seattle to attend UNLV and open a coffee bar near the Metz Nightclub (later the Roxbury and Utopia) that became a popular DJ-caffeinating grounds. That was the start of a long relationship with electronic music that’s catapulted Zee to the top of Las Vegas’ talent-booking food chain, and beyond, as vice president of brand development and entertainment for ATM Artists.
What served as your entrée to DJ culture?
The DJs always used to come get coffee. We would go to Utopia, but I didn’t know what it was about—I was a very innocent, sheltered young girl. I just fell in love with the music. My mom had gone to Europe and brought me back a Robert Miles CD; it was the most amazing thing I’d ever heard. I started working at Utopia as a cocktail waitress, and I always got in trouble with my manager, Pauly Freeman [now director of operations for Surrender, Encore Beach Club and Andrea’s], for dancing instead of actually serving drinks. I was the waitress in the area for the DJs at that point, before becoming a bartender and VIP host. I became really good friends with the DJs and I’ve kept a lot of my friendships from back then.
When did you start booking those DJs?
[Downtown Cocktail Room and The Beat owner] Michael Cornthwaite at Risqué hired me as the marketing manager, and that was the first time I ever booked DJs on my own: DJ Colette, Richard Humpty Vission, Christopher Lawrence. Around 2004, Light Group was opening Jet and I got an offer to run the house room. It got so good, Andy Massy gave me opportunities to book shows in the main room. We did this Halloween show once with Roger Sanchez, John Digweed, Benny Benassi and Armand van Helden. I did a show with Tiësto, Sharam … like the best artists in the world.
What booking makes you most proud in retrospect?
My biggest highlight booking was Swedish House Mafia. I was the first person to play them in Vegas. I put my job on the line, because it was expensive. There was one show at Wet Republic and one show Halloween at the Hard Rock at The Joint. The show at The Joint was the best show I’ve ever done: the introduction, to the build out, to the marketing, to the billboards. It was really the start of that whole boom, and that was my baby.
Along with Swedish House Mafia, who were the other top artists you broke in Las Vegas?
Avicii. I went to Ibiza when he was opening for Tiësto and wasn’t even 21 yet. I booked him at Wet Republic and no one knew who he was. I booked Afrojack’s first show, that was at Wet Republic. He opened up for Deadmau5. Steve Angello is one that I’ve actually become very close friends with, I booked his first show here, at Body English. Another more recently is Alesso.
What are the indicators that somebody’s about to blow up?
No. 1 is production, putting music out. No. 2, I think, is just the connection, being able to read and vibe with a crowd. If it’s a small house room in Jet, or if it’s a big room like The Joint, or a festival site, being able to creatively adjust to the crowd.
Where do you discover and scout the next big producer?
I’m always on Beatport and going to festivals, not necessarily going to the main stage, but going to some of the side stages. Following up on YouTube, reading magazines and articles, being on the Web and constantly searching. Another thing that’s important is feedback from other people. I’ll be on Facebook and someone will link a new track and I’ll go, “Wow, I’ve never heard of this guy.”
What’s the key to maintaining strong artist relationships?
First, I never try to cross the line when it comes to management. There are artists, managers and agents for a reason. I try to never get involved on the business side of things with the actual artist, and a lot of people nowadays do cross that line. Second, I treat every artist the same and they respect that. Third, I’ve had some of my best friends sign deals with other companies. It’s important to respect peoples’ judgment on where they choose to go—people can always end up working together again.
Apart from crossing the artist/management line, what’s the biggest challenge facing talent buyers today?
The biggest challenge right now is financial. Some are not making the best decisions because they have a big check; talent buyers in this market are overpaying. There are a lot of venues out here that can give artists an amazing show or production who are struggling to pick up artists.
Biggest change between working with the Light Group then and now?
They were one of the first clubs in town to start the table service and bottle service. I think the full circle part is at Light they’ve gone back to their understanding of electronic music fans. It’s great when people pay $10K, $20K for a table, but they’ve done such a good job allowing fans to come watch an artist with a $30-$50 ticket. They want to make those people equally as happy and important as people who are buying a table.
What are the biggest trends you’re seeing in house music?
All I see is more and more collaborations happening. At first it was just Kanye West and Daft Punk on a track. Rihanna and Calvin—look at what a mega hit that became, it changed Calvin’s entire career. It’s great music on the radio. I see more and more and more collaborations. And it’s not just the DJ anymore; the production level is now a key factor with the artist, the visuals. They’re performers, there’s a show that’s going on around them.
Are you capitalizing on the collaborations/productions trends in your career?
With Amy it’s great because she has great experience with doing shows around the world. Being able to do a show in Miami or a show on a lot here in Las Vegas, or a show in L.A., or Cabo, for me it’s a better experience to do things I’ve never done before. I kind of feel like I have a new artist’s palette.