Steven Van Zandt: IMG Deal Gets Him From Rocker to Marketer

Q&A: E-Streeter, Actor, DJ Talks About Managing His Diverse Personas and Charity Work

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Any diehard Bruce Springsteen fan can attest that at least three different Steven Van Zandts have emerged over the last three decades.

There's Little Steven, his nickname as Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band's lead guitarist in the 1970s and early '80s, when the group disbanded. Formally reunited since the late '90s, they are about to play the halftime show for Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Steven Van Zandt
Steven Van Zandt
There's also Silvio Dante, the smooth-talking mob henchman/strip-club owner from HBO's "The Sopranos," a role he played from 1999 until the show's finale in 2007.


Then there's his current gig as radio host, presiding over "Little Steven's Underground Garage," a weekly radio show currently syndicated on more than 146 radio stations in 202 markets across the U.S. and Canada, reaching more than 1 million weekly listeners. He also programs two 24-hour rock channels for Sirius Satellite Radio.

Now all three of those Van Zandts are merging, courtesy of a new deal with IMG, the global sports and entertainment marketing company. Mr. Van Zandt has signed with the agency for an exclusive worldwide marketing pact, expected to include everything from endorsements and integrated radio deals to philanthropy, as part of Little Steven's Rock N Roll High School, a foundation he co-founded with Menc: The National Association for Music Education, Scholastic and the Rock N Roll Forever Foundation.

But first and foremost on Mr. Van Zandt's agenda for 2009 is bringing rock 'n' roll back to TV, and he is currently courting sponsors to help back a TV pilot before he starts pitching networks. "With the economy as it is, we want to make it easy for the networks to embrace us," Mr. Van Zandt said. "Everyone we've talked to has loved the idea -- we've been waiting for this for a long time. There hasn't been a real rock show on TV for 50 years."

David Abrutyn, senior VP-managing director of IMG Consulting North America, said Mr. Van Zandt's diverse talents and commitment to the preservation of rock music made him a perfect fit for IMG's client roster, which already includes Tiger Woods, Eli and Peyton Manning, Venus Williams and Jeff Gordon.

"When you look at Steven, what's he's accomplished over the course of his career both in music and television certainly fits our model of the type of talent we like to work with," he said. "Steven is a great story -- there's no one more authentic in rock 'n' roll than him."

Mr. Van Zandt, 58, recently spoke with Madison & Vine about his deal with IMG, his thoughts on becoming an ad pitchman for the first time and why Silvio Dante is definitely not sleeping with the fishes.

Madison & Vine: So now that you're teaming with IMG, how soon before we see you on TV doing commercials for different products?

Steven Van Zandt: I've never endorsed anything, so it's going to be a whole new world for me. But it's time to start, you know, it's a nice way these days of being visible. Obviously I'm not going to endorse something I don't already use or do. It's going to be a natural, sort of organic thing, whatever I do.

It's nice just to have that feeling of support from a serious and wonderfully run organization as IMG. I'm just honored they were interested in working with me and the company -- more the company than me, probably. There's not a whole lot of time to take an acting job, and I may be touring again next year, we'll see -- so it's nice to sneak those things in when I can.

M&V: Who would make a good fit for a potential endorsement -- what kind of advertisers are you working with currently on your radio show?

Mr. Van Zandt: We've done a lot of sponsorship deals with various people through the years – Dunkin' Donuts, Pepsi, AT&T, Rolling Rock, Budweiser. Hard Rock Café was one of our first sponsors and Hard Rock remains one of our premier presenting sponsors, they've been just terrific.

I think we appeal to a lot of people in this fragmented world. We own the rock 'n' roll niche. People come to us and know we're the most credible in the world. And we have good inventory, not this 12- to 16-minute inventory some people engage in. We limit our inventory to eight minutes an hour, and four of our national sponsors take up half the time and split the other four minutes with our other affiliates. There's only room for four [premier sponsors] a year, so it's a nice fit for sponsors who want a special relationship with us.

M&V: You recently revisited Silvio in video-game form for the new "World of Warcraft." Any chance you'd be willing to revisit him in any future IMG endeavors?

Mr. Van Zandt: Ah, Silvio ... I think people need to know he's still breathing, still alive and well. I had a fun little couple lines in "World of Warcraft." I tried him out, people seemed to like it, so I think it might be time to bring him back.

M&V: What are you hoping to accomplish through your music-education foundation with Scholastic and Menc?

Mr. Van Zandt: Everyone has been wonderfully supportive. Right now, fundraising is at $3 million of the $9 million we need to do the pilot program. If fundraising keeps going as it is, we could be in schools with a pilot program as early as 2010. We're also working on a 40-chapter history of rock 'n' roll book, being written by the biggest writers in America. We need teachers to actually embrace it and endorse it, so we'd be honored by that. I feel it's a very strong way of fighting this dropout rate, which I'm hearing could be as high as a third. A third! I've never heard of these numbers before, we just can't have that. Talk about competing in a global economy -- if a third of our kids are dropping out of school, we should be doing everything we can to fight that on the nonprofit side.

M&V: With your radio show, you seem to have filled the niche left wide open by all the former "modern rock" stations that have long since switched to classic rock or other formats entirely. What other aspects of rock culture are still untapped, do you think?

Mr. Van Zandt: Our radio format is based on the best new music in the world. Nobody else is playing new rock 'n' roll but us. You can hear new hip-hop, new hard rock, new indie rock. You can't hear new rock 'n' roll except on our format. That is something we have got to change in order to serve the most underserved market in the world. The Stones, Bruce, Bon Jovi all served 3 million fans on their last tours. And that's not the same 3 million. We're talking about tens of million of people not being served by radio. That's why people love our syndicated show and are being attracted to the Sirius channels we program 24 hours a day.

The most unique thing we did was combine playing the best new rock 'n' roll with the best old rock 'n' roll. Everybody said that couldn't work, but cool is forever. People who really love rock 'n' roll, they love Little Richard, they love The Yardbirds and they love The Hives. And we're the only one in the world serving all those. It really is a place where people are tuning in get a chance to learn a little history, and still play the top 10 hottest records in the world every week. Because who has time to keep up? That's the service we provide, and that's our job.

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