Swag Makes the Music Go Round

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In the music biz, promotional merchandise is known as swag, and David (Beno) Benveniste, 30, is the swagmeister. His Streetwise Concepts & Culture gives away thousands of T shirts, stickers, posters and CD samplers to "street teams" of young volunteers (speaking of free) who spread the buzz to other kids in skate parks, high schools and concert parking lots. It's peer-to-peer marketing done with minimal investing and maximum effect. "Everybody wants free stuff," he says with a laugh. "And if a16-year-old has a backpack full of cool gear to hand out, he feels like a king."

Giving away trinkets is a heck of a lot cheaper than shooting a video--and frequently much more effective. "The first 100,000 albums are always the hardest to sell, and that's the expertise Beno provides," says Rick Rubin, founder of the American Recordings label. "He gives you a way to get things started." Benveniste first tapped into the power of youth marketing while managing the heavy-metal group System of a Down after graduating from college. He hyped the band in Internet chat rooms, giving out his home phone number. When kids called up, he would play some music on a boom box and then mail them a free cassette.

In just three years Benveniste built an army of more than 30,000 kids who distribute swag to their pals in what he calls "hand-to-hand promotion." Clients included Rage Against the Machine, Radiohead and Limp Bizkit. Next: hip-hop, electronics, films, fashion and, perhaps someday, even politics. "We want to become the voice of today's kids," says Benveniste, "empowering them to bond together and giving them something to belong to." But giving them some free stuff first.