(cover artwork for my debut CD, “Darren Robbins Steals Your Girlfriend”)

Having just had my tune dropped from the Naked Gun flick, my label was momentarily stymied, as they had looked upon the inclusion of one of my songs in “a major motion picture” as a big promotional opportunity.

That’s when the head of the label came up with the idea to promote the CD on TV. I know, I know. It sounds weird, but he was convinced the “Slim Whitman” approach would work, even for an unknown artist, if you advertised enough and the music was good.

We taped a commercial that was more a comedy sketch than infomercial and then started airing the commercials on local cable providers throughout the Midwest. Operators were literally standing by and, during the first weekend the commercial ran, we got only one order. It was from a guy who had lived just down the street from me and had hated my guts. My most vivid memory of the guy was years ago: I was riding my bike around the neighborhood when he and his friends cornered me and he started a fight that he lost in a very big way. From then on, he was much friendlier to me, but our paths rarely crossed. Turns out he was now in college in southern Illinois and had seen the commercial on MTV.

There were other calls, of course, mostly from people calling the 800 number to see if the commercial was “for real” or not.

“We just spent thousands of dollars to sell one CD to a kid I went to school with,” I yelled, trying to talk some sense into the guys at my label. To me, the money going into this add campaign could be better spent lighting cigars or wiping our asses.

They told me that they’d signed contracts to air the commercials through the end of the month in several markets across the country. The money was already spent. There was no going back.

Despite running multiple times daily, the ads did not manage to help sell a single copy over the next week. I was sick to my stomach thinking about how much cash was flying out the door. It wasn’t my cash, of course, but it was cash that was being spent on my behalf by guys who certainly deserved to see some return on their investment.

Then a funny thing happened.

It was like I just woke up one day and the world was different. First, a record store in Chicago that had taken ten copies of the CD on consignment called us to say they’d sold out of all of them in a single day and that they wanted to buy more copies. They’d even pay for them up-front.

There were also messages from a few major newspapers on the label’s answering machine wanting information on “that guy in those crazy commercials”.

When we checked in with the answering service that was providing phone operators and order processing, they told us that sales for the weekend were well over two thousand copies.

Turns out it had just taken some time for the ad to achieve saturation and connect with its audience. Now customers were calling in with credit cards at the ready.

The downside was that many callers were interested in getting the album on cassette, but this label prided itself on being “CD only”. In hindsight, we could have easily doubled sales by embracing the cassette, but what can you do? This was a CD-only label, baby.

Meanwhile, the Rose Records chain, which had initially balked at carrying the CD, but then showed infectious enthusiasm in carrying the CD when we made it known we were willing to pay for print ads in major local publications, was voluntarily promoting the CD via placement in end caps. This is something for which many labels pay retailers like Best Buy (and the now-defunct Tower Records) ridiculous money and here we were getting prime placement in dozens of stores throughout the Chicago area for free.

Did I mention that the CD’s were now flying off the shelf? The same woman at Rose Records who had initially told us to get lost was now leaving messages every hour on the hour trying to get her hands on more copies of the CD. They cut us a check for the purchase of 2,500 units and we gave them the last of our existing stock. With TV ads still running and the CD moving well at retail, we were now backordered.

Then, on my to a friend’s house, I flipped on WXRT and heard one of my songs playing. It was only the last twenty seconds or so, then the DJ broke in and said “That was ‘Travel long My Wandering Heart’ by a local guy here in town, Darren Robbins.”

I was alone and it was over before I could tell anyone. A minute later, there was a part of me still not quite sure it had actually happened.

Of course, WXRT is a real radio station and I was not their only listener. That day, every friend I had (and a lot of people I didn’t realize were my friends) called to say they’d heard my song on the radio.

Over the next several days, reviews of the CD would appear in Musician (written by Trouser Press founder Ira Robbins – no relation, whose work I had long admired) and Rolling Stone magazine. Major labels were also calling the office on a daily basis, expressing interest.

It was an incredibly heady time.

TO BE CONTINUED

Caroline’s Sister Desaray (my personal favorite song from the CD)

Love of Another Wave (a song that began as a Montserrat demo, as if my voice isn’t chirpy enough, I believe the finished track was sped up a little during mixing)

Tagged in: