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  • Writer's pictureBrian Vander Ark

Find Your Focus

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

It was the spring of 1990 when I finally said enough is enough.

Less than a month ago, I had performed at Farm Aid IV at Willie Nelson’s request. He had

heard my demo tape and invited me to participate in what was sure to be my big break. And as wonderful as it was to perform on the giant stage, rubbing elbows with John Mellencamp, Neil Young, and Lou Reed, my big break was a bust. There was no record deal waiting for me when I left the stage, and exposure doesn’t pay the overdue bills.

I was heavily in debt and couldn’t afford to work one job—a part-time lounge singer at the Holiday Inn. I needed the dreaded day job as well. A buddy suggested I apply at the sporting goods store where he sold shoes. Had he not already told me of the daily horrors of being a shoe seller, I might have considered it.

“Well, they’re looking for someone in the Pro Shop as well,” he said. I applied and got the job.

Working in the Pro Shop meant selling and stringing tennis rackets…er, I mean

tennis racquets. The Pro Shop Manager was a bit of a fancy pants, insisting that the higher end models we carried were spelled and pronounced in the original form.

RacQUET,” he said on my first day. I detected a bit of a French accent—odd from a man

whose name was Jimmy. “Say it for me.”

“RacKET,” I said.

“Hmmm,” Jimmy said. “It really sounds to me as if you’re saying it like you’re spelling it with a K-E-T at the end. But that’s ok, it’s your first day. You’ll get it at some point.”

By the time I finally pronounced it to Jimmy’s liking—about a year later—I decided I needed to find something outside of sports. I was a musician, after all. I’m 26, already halfway through my prime rock star years. I needed a more significant break than even Willie had given me.

I answered an ad looking for “a representative in the world of music.” “Representative”

sounded like “Insider” to me. How exciting! I leaned my resume toward music, going as far as saying my time served in the Army was spent cataloging the U.S. Government’s vast library of LPs. It worked, I got the job and said au revoir to Jimmy and the racquets.

This “new and exciting” job was anything but. I was a sales rep for a distribution company. I would be making long drives from Walmart to Walmart throughout the Midwest to restock the music departments. Because each store was a once a week visit, I arrived to find a dozen boxes of CDs and cassette tapes of artists that had to be sorted alphabetically and shelved. There were so many cassettes (they still outsold CDs) that the tops of the shelves were stacked an additional three feet high with the top-selling acts, in this case, Vanilla Ice and Paula Abdul.

1990 wasn’t a great time for my kind of music (consider the artists mentioned above.) Both acts dominated radio back then, and stores were selling their music at a pace too fast for me to handle every week. On each store visit, I was met by an angry manager who wanted to know why he was losing customers to the record store down the street.

It was demoralizing on every level. I wondered if I would ever be the artist that some

distribution rep is complaining about, stocking my band’s cassettes on top of the shelves, nearly to the ceiling, only to have those cassettes sold out a few days later. And the more I saw The New Kids on the Block (Live On VHS!) video played incessantly on the fifty screens surrounding the music section, the more my dream of being a rock star faded. But something told me to stick with it; my time would come.

It dawned on me that I was spending more time in my car than stocking the shelves. Maybe I should take on another job for the times I’m in the car!

Thankfully I came up with the solution before I started licking envelopes while driving to

make some extra dough. I decided I needed to shift my focus and reinvent my perception of this current job situation. I was no longer going to be a full-time sales rep and a part-time musician. I was going to be a full-time musician and part-time sales rep!

The long, lonely drives that I once dreaded became my songwriting sessions. Instead of

listening to books on tape, I spent those hours in the car listening to my own demos. Over and over, singing along, trying to harmonize to my vocals, and finding the puzzle piece of a lyric that was a little bit better, a tiny bit catchier.

It was another eight years of perseverance before my dream came true. I was 33 (well past the age of typical rock stardom) when my band’s song knocked U2 off the number one spot on the Billboard chart. We sold 3 million CDs and cassettes on the strength of our album called Villains, with our hit song, “The Freshmen.” Incidentally, that song began with the words I had written on my notepad on one of those long drives: “When I was young I knew everything.”

I’m sure many of those store managers who met me with anger looked at the replacement reps in the distribution company in the same way when our CDs were the ones that sold out. I can’t help but think some of them might even tell the new young reps about the rock star who once held their position. Part-time, of course.

Brian Vander Ark is the lead singer of The Verve Pipe. He has a new album of his favorite songs called Planet Sunday Sessions Vol II. Released in April 2021.

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