SONY ENLISTS BUZZ-MASTER RIFKIND

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Psst! Listen up: Sony Music Entertainment has just signed the man making the biggest buzz in the music world today.

His name is Steven Rifkind, and for the past 10 years, his Los Angeles-based marketing company has been executing grass-roots marketing programs for record labels.

But it has only been in the past three years that the Street Team division of the Steven Rifkind Co. has been in the business of infiltrating inner cities and creating "buzz" for rap groups signed to big name music labels like RCA Records and Warner Bros.

"It's all about word-of-mouth. Before the video is on MTV, before the song hits the radio, we're out in the streets, creating the awareness and the hype," said Mr. Rifkind, president and owner.

Music companies are his bread and butter, but marketers from other categories have sought out the services of the Street Team, too. Mr. Rifkind's crew has distributed Nike "Just do it" stickers and T-Shirts, and has also done work for Miramax Films.

Field marshal Rifkind described his Street Team troops as "hungry young kids on the cutting edge of what's going on in the streets." Not a single one of his 45 employees, he said, is over age 24.

Since 1991, the Street Team has helped get the word out on Brand Nubians for Elektra Records and got people talking about Tupac Shakur for Interscope. He even whipped up some hype a couple years ago for a supposedly washed-up superstar formerly known as Prince.

In May, the Street Team began working on creating a buzz for the Beat Nuts, Fat Joe and a number of other rap acts signed to Sony, which paid a fee "in the tens of thousands" for the service.

The battle plan calls for the Street Team to canvass neighborhoods in more than 15 major cities, hitting hot spots where young people hang out, like nightclubs, playgrounds, sporting events, and even barbershops and churches. The target audience: African-American males ages 9 to 17. It's a group Mr. Rifkind characterizes as difficult to reach and impress through traditional media.

A getting-others-to-work-for-you strategy is a key tactic. The Street Team looks to get their client's products into the hands of the in-the-know disc jockeys, hip hair-cutters and others who hold sway.

And then there are the kids in the classroom: Mr. Rifkind has created a high school internship program, where teens get free product in exchange for helping distribute cassettes, T-shirts and other products to fellow students.

"The major record companies can't do what we can do," he asserted. "Kids would get turned off by the marketing and politics of major corporations. We have the street credibility, though. We know how to talk to them."

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