Company Bands Rock Out: Why Making Music Is Good for Business

By Greg Goth Jul 22, 2016
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​London Dungeon, Duke University's entrant in a recent Triangle Corporate Battle of the Bands contest, rocks the crowd in Durham, N.C.

There is "no way," Susan Schubbe explained, that she would ever get up on stage with Curb Appeal, the company band at plastic and medical device manufacturer Curbell Inc., where Schubbe is the chief HR officer.

But that doesn't mean she is not 100 percent behind the band—and what it brings to Curbell's company morale and visibility in the Buffalo, N.Y., area.

"They would not want me," Schubbe joked of the band. "I work behind the scenes. I'm kind of like the promoter. They are so awesome and I appreciate everything they do for the company."

There is nothing new about promoting music in the workplace to build a sense of company spirit. But rather than playing selections out of an approved corporate songbook as was common in times past, today's company bands—like LinkedIn's NextPlay—are better known for hard-rocking covers like "Are You Gonna Be My Girl?" from the Australian band Jet.


As for establishing a quantitative return on investment (ROI), "If HR leaders are asking what the ROI of a music program is, they're not getting the point," said Michael Olivier, former director of the corporate music program at LinkedIn, where he was also director of engineering. "If a company wants to have a creative, interesting and attractive culture, a music program is the sort of thing they ought to be doing. You don't buy a ping-pong table and ask the ROI—you get it because you want a certain kind of a culture."

He added, "If you are completely undifferentiated from your competitors and don't care about that, don't have a music program."

Building Musical Community

Olivier, who said LinkedIn's C-suite and HR executives were extremely supportive of establishing an ongoing music program, offered some pointers on getting one off the ground in a blog post that called music a must-have workplace perk.

The music program has grown to encompass about 200 employees at LinkedIn's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. Along with NextPlay, the program includes an a cappella group, InTune, and private music lessons for interested employees. Incoming program director Neil Pomerleau, who is also a senior software engineer, said he trains two to three employees a week on how to use instruments and other equipment in the main band room. Additionally, music rooms and programs are in various stages of development at other LinkedIn offices worldwide.

Caitlin Crump, NextPlay's lead vocalist and a senior data scientist at LinkedIn, said performing in the band helped her develop a sense of common purpose with colleagues with whom she doesn't directly work in her day-to-day occupation—a sentiment echoed by Jonathan Hughes, a senior graphic designer at Curbell and Curb Appeal's bass player.

"We don't necessarily all work together," Hughes said of his bandmates. Curbell's Buffalo office employs 250 of the company's 450 workers. "The band is a combination of people from different departments and different parts of the company. It has helped build connections."

The band also fosters a sense of connection among those who are not members. For instance, the name Curb Appeal was decided via a companywide "name the band" contest.

Corporate Band 'Battles'

The national Battle of the Corporate Bands, an annual music competition for amateur company-sponsored bands, raises money for good causes including the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, which serves as the location for the final round of the competition. It's billed as a "celebration of musicians with day jobs," and all participants must be employees of the submitting company.

Participating in locally sponsored "battles," often affiliated with the national competition and with proceeds also going to charity, pays off not just in building spirit within a company but also serves as a low-cost way to promote a business, Hughes said.

Curbell's Curb Appeal competed in Buffalo's first such battle held last November, and by all accounts it was a roaring success.

"In terms of the community, it helped an arts organization that was able to raise a lot of money," Hughes noted. "It also helped to get the Curbell name out. We don't sell consumer products, so people don't necessarily know what we do." Such competitions, he said, "make us a little more prominent in the community."

Durham, N.C.-based ad agency McKinney pioneered the local Triangle Corporate Battle of the Bands contest in its adopted hometown in 2006, two years after moving from nearby Raleigh. McKinney CEO Brad Brinegar said the idea for holding the battle stemmed from the 2005 national battle held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—won by McKinney's band.

The Triangle Corporate Battle now features eight or nine bands, has netted more than $1 million for charity over the years and fosters a spirit of friendly competition within the local business community, Brinegar said.

He added that McKinney's support for the competition "helps us attract better people, because it's a reflection both of our creativity and our belief that we serve a bigger need than just ourselves."

One-Night Bandstands​

Not all corporate music programs are ongoing ventures. A special "fantasy camp" experience also can foster employee morale, and executives who sponsor such programs say they can be a team-building experience extraordinaire.

Last year Emmanuel Manos, president and CEO of Orlando, Fla.-based Florida Business Development Corp., a not-for-profit small business lender, put his 34 employees through Team Rock Stars, a rock "boot camp" that can run from several hours to several days. The experience typically ends with a live performance, such as playing along with well-known musicians at a corporate function.

"Our company had what can only be described in corporate terminology as a kickass time," Manos said.

The team-building experience was overseen by Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, directed by Joe Mara, whose professional background includes corporate training for brokerage Merrill Lynch. Mara has designed the camps to develop a sense of purpose among each group of employees, with teams split into those who play or sing music and those who take on other tasks associated with forming a band, such as promotion or graphic design.

At one of the inaugural corporate camps, held by General Electric, Mara said 220 employees from 21 different countries took part—"a huge, diverse set of people, but the program worked."

"It's not just a boondoggle fun affair," he said. "We can really tie this into the objectives" a company is setting forth for its team.

Greg Goth is a freelance writer covering employment issues. He's based in Oakville, Conn.

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