Entertainment Marketers of the Year

Steven Rifkind, Akon

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As soon as rap mogul Steven Rifkind heard the lyrics and melodies of Akon, a St. Louis-born rapper who grew up in Senegal and spent time in prison, he was convinced the performer was something special.
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Established street cred via collaborations with Snoop Dogg and Eminem, then boosted ringtones

Mr. Rifkin discovered the artist when a friend stopped him on Sunset Boulevard and gave him a CD to hear.

"When I first told [parent Universal Music Group Chairman-CEO] Doug Morris that Akon would be the biggest artist of my career, he looked at me like I was crazy," says Mr. Rifkind, 45, founder and chief of Steven Rifkind Co.

SRC promoted the "Konvicted" album by pushing collaborations with Eminem and Snoop Dogg. The album has sold 2.2 million copies since its release last year.

Expanding Akon brand
Thanks to Mr. Rifkind, Akon's brand extends beyond concert venues; he became a top-selling ringtones artist, selling a stunning 4 million of them for tracks such as "Smack That" and "I Wanna Love You." Akon also boasts a clothing line, Konvict, as well as an upcoming biopic starring Mekhi Phifer.

Mr. Rifkind was instrumental in positioning Akon across musical genres, including R&B, rap and pop. Although Verizon Wireless dropped its promotional support for Akon's current tour with Gwen Stefani, blaming a suggestive dance onstage with an underage fan (for which he's since apologized), some 27 Akon ringtones are still for sale on Verizon's site. He also remains on tour with Ms. Stefani.

Mr. Rifkind grew up in the music business; his father, Jules, ran the '70s R&B label Spring Records. That experi-ence helped the younger Mr. Rifkind create the Street Team concept in '90s, which used a grass-roots approach to breaking hip-hop records, then applied those principles to link artists with marketers such as Pepsi and Nike.

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