A Long Strange Trip: Jeff Suhy’s Journey from Artists & Repertoire to Twitter & Facebook – Part 1

Originally published on IDesignYourEyes on 12/29/09.

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In 2009 Jeff Suhy joined Zoic Studios, the visual effects house in Culver City, California. How the former A&R executive found himself working alongside the creators of spaceships for Battlestar Galactica and vicious monsters for Fringe is not only the story of one man’s career, but of the trajectory of the entire entertainment industry over the past three decades.

In the first part of this two part interview, Suhy describes the path of his career and how he came to Zoic as Creative Director – Digital Strategy. In the second part, he discusses the current state of the record industry, and what the catastrophic changes there portent for the entertainment industry as a whole.

So, you started out at the 128th best university in the country [Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College].

Is that what it is? [Peals of laughter.] That’s awesome! Out of how many, 150?

I was a track athlete in high school and I was recruited by a number of schools. My only real criterion was that I go to a warm place, and the warmest place that recruited me was LSU. So I went to LSU on a track scholarship.

Where did you grow up?

Chicago area, suburbs of Chicago.

So what was it like going to the South?

It was great. I was born in Tallahassee. So my family is from the South, and we somehow found ourselves in Chicago, because my Dad was transferred a lot via work. … My goal in life was to escape the Midwest; and I really wanted to come west, but I really didn’t have any reasonable scholarship offers out of the West. So I went south into the heart of the beast. And I stayed there for five years.

I ran the college radio station there – I was music director, I should say. I ran it from the industry perspective, as opposed to the actual operation of the station. And I worked at a record store. We bought a bunch of imports, and I started to learn about all these independent and import artists, and started programming that stuff on the radio. We started working with some of the labels to bring the bands through Baton Rouge.

I discovered you could have a record store radio station, and you could promote music and actually turn an artist that no one had ever heard of into something that people actually wanted to see. These bands would come touring through the US, and would have a date in Atlanta, then they’d go to New Orleans, then they’d go to Houston, and maybe they would have a stopover in Baton Rouge for the night. What they’d discover was that the shows in Baton Rouge were bigger than the shows in the major markets… because we were promoting the artists on campus. We ended up creating a successful scene there.

This was the mid-80s, right?

The mid-80s’ yeah – ‘84 to ‘88 would be the time frame. Then I started talking to SST Records, they wanted to bring me out to L.A. I’ll tell you the whole story, even though I know zero of this story should end up on [the blog post.]

So I moved out to L.A. thinking I was gonna work for SST Records, and when I got here they were bankrupt. I had nowhere to work and nowhere to live. I had a couple of hundred bucks in my pocket. And my Dad said “you’re an idiot.” My uncle gave me a place to stay on the floor of his apartment. I was resigned to survive L.A., even though I was having a really hard time.

I took a job at Larry Flynt Publications, as marketing coordinator, because I found it in the newspaper the day I got here and realized I didn’t have a job. [Suhy describes his job censoring pornographic material for ads, with NSFW details.] That was the most glamorous part of that job.

My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity.

As you might imagine, I was pretty diligent while taking the money from that job — I think $18,500 a year was my salary — taking that money and surviving until I could get myself into the music business, which is why I came out here.

The heavens opened, and I ascended to A&M Records in a miraculous scenario that changed my life. I stayed there ten years, and became vice president of A&R there, during that 10 year period.

And then A&M was acquired by Universal, and they fired everybody including me, even though I was so great. I had about a year-and-a-half on my contract to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, which was fortuitous, because I didn’t have to work. So I spent a lot of time on the Internet. I was really into technology and computers; I had an Apple II Plus when I was in high school in ‘82-‘83. So I was always trying to figure out technology, write programs, and hack things.

Then Napster came along when I was on my hiatus, and I went a week without sleep; I was obsessed. And at the end of that week I realized … I was going in to music & technology.

So I found a couple of guys…, and collectively we started a company that was ultimately called Nine Systems. … We worked with all the entertainment companies, and we built a software platform over a period of seven or eight years; and that was ultimately acquired by Akamai… which is a pretty major tech company, in December 2006. I stayed there for two years, and then escaped the MIT-PhD-math world and came back into the entertainment business, which is where I am now at Zoic. To combine my vast production and content experience with my now vast technology experience, and find ways to help media companies solve the riddle of the digital media era.

Can you talk about what you’re doing right now?

Right now we’re working with ad agencies on everything from banner ads, to other basic web implementations for brands. We’re working with some online brands in the redesign of their web sites and rebranding efforts. We are working with game companies to develop new ways to market their video games to consumers. It’s all little pieces of a big puzzle.

We’re developing original IP right now, which is a product called Media OS. We’re very optimistic that’s something a lot of our clients are going to find very useful to manage and build online media experiences.

But why Zoic?

Good question. As I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, I met [Zoic Studios founders] Loni [Peristere and] Chris [Jones] and [CFO] Tim [McBride], and realized there is a kindred spirit here. There is a support structure here to have that entrepreneurial, “invent-something-new” environment, combined with a stable, thriving creative organization that is very client-focused and very flexible. It isn’t all rigid and CFO-driven — it’s very creative-driven. It has … a start-up kind of vibe, but it’s well-established. Zoic is trying to leverage “visual evolution” into the new age of digital media, and I saw that was a great fit for me, I could help that happen.

Nobody wanted to hear anything about technology; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know?

I spent many years of my life at A&M being very artist- and very creative-driven; creating media, understanding pop culture, and understanding how people respond to media, how to market media; everything that was very media-oriented and entertainment-oriented. And I love that environment, everything being driven from a creative perspective. And I saw it dying in the late 90s, as corporate methodology was coming into a business that was once very naïve and gut-instinct-oriented. If you didn’t have a hit with an artist, it was an artist-development environment, where if everyone in the company believed in the artist, you would keep trying to foster their success, even though they wouldn’t have necessarily have any immediate returns on their first record. I just love that environment.

The record business became sort of a “home-run-or-forget-it,” a hit business. And the economics changed; the value of the art changed; it became much more of a commodity, much more commercialized. It became much less appealing. My feeling was, where is the creativity going? I wanted to follow the creativity. I wanted to use my experience in developing artists…

I had a certain skill set, but I had never had a chance, because of the myopic nature of the record business, to be able to use my technology background and interest in technology, because [the industry] was very phobic. Nobody wanted to hear anything about it; hopefully if you just close your eyes and litigate against it, it will go away, you know? I was doing all kinds of interesting stuff in technology, and it was not a receptive environment to that type of thing.

I also got tired of going to clubs, and I got more interested in sitting in front of my computer. I knew there had to be a future with music online and content online, and I wanted to have a deeper understanding of that, to the root. So I dove from production A&R into software, and let my geek side come out. That was very rewarding, and I enjoy that business and enjoy software and Internet content and digital media, all that stuff. I love what’s happening right now, it’s a very exciting and dynamic time.

I see a lot of companies and people struggling with how to make sense of it, and companies trying to market their artists, or market their media, their brand –I know where these people come from because I was there. It’s tough to wrap your head around these new models. I enjoy combing the new sensibility and contemporary thinking in digital media with an analog state of mind, which used to be and still is in some degree the prevalent way of thinking in the media business.

The best way to do that was to start a company, and develop this software that nobody had and which became really valuable, and was purchased for $160 million by Akamai. I did time at Akamai, which was fascinating, because then I got really deep into the technology. But I also discovered I don’t really want to go there, that’s not really where it’s interesting for me, it’s too much; and I needed to find a place that had an understanding of both [creativity and technology], and that’s why I’m at Zoic. It’s a company that embraces technology but has a traditional understanding of and adoration of creativity. Understanding those things is the future, and I’m in the future now, that’s why I’m here.

Where’s your flying car?

It’s outside. (Laughs.)

Read Part 2.

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