What rhymes with ‘web components’? Office workers go to country music bootcamp

Kicksaw employees get into the groove with songwriter Rusty Tabor during a company retreat in Nashville.
Kicksaw employees get into the groove with songwriter Rusty Tabor during a company retreat in Nashville.

Summary

Employees are summoning their inner Willie Nelsons at team-building events in Nashville. Bandanas and braids optional.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—“Can we rhyme ‘suck less’ with ‘success’?"

Victoria Banks, a country musician who has written hits for Reba McEntire and Sara Evans, strummed her guitar and began humming a melody as she encouraged a group of about 16 software consultants in hoodies and jeans to throw out more rhymes. They tried.

“Stress?" “Process?" “Make your Salesforce the best?"

Within an hour, the group—one of four teams spread out on the first two floors of Nashville’s Virgin Hotel—had written a twangy number about cloud software, complete with two verses, a bridge and a chorus that referenced the business apps Notion and TaskRay.

Companies spend more than $3 billion a year on team-building events as managers search for the holy grail of collaboration and connection. That quest has gotten more urgent since 2020, when thousands of companies adopted hybrid or fully remote models and workers dispersed around the globe.

At retreats and off-sites, teams make ramen, throw axes, square dance, and engage in Nerf wars, improv comedy or sumo wrestling. (No need to see your boss in a loincloth; participants wear padded sumo suits.) In Nashville, of course, they write country songs. Thanks to a wealth of musicians and dwindling opportunities for them to make a living, the city has become a hot spot for employees of America’s biggest companies to bond while writing lyrics about corporate values and new product lines.

Getting into the sing of things

At the Virgin Hotel last month, the 60-odd novice songwriters were employees of Kicksaw, an all-remote consulting firm that specializes in implementing and maintaining clients’ Salesforce software systems.

Some had never met their co-workers in person before the retreat. Now, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, they had to loosen up and summon their inner Willie Nelsons.

Not everyone was jazzed. “When I told the team we were doing a songwriting exercise, half the people rolled their eyes," said Kyle Morris, Kicksaw’s 38-year-old co-founder.

They soldiered on. “Ninety-six percent of 4-year-olds are highly creative, but only 10% of adults say they are creative. So what happened to y’all?" MC Billy Kirsch asked at the outset from a makeshift stage in the ballroom-cum-conference room. Kirsch, a songwriter behind hits for Wynonna Judd and the band Alabama, helped them along: “We stop getting rewarded for creative pursuits."

The crowd split into four teams, each assigned a Kicksaw corporate value. Banks led her team to a hotel balcony, where they hammered out the words and melody for their song about the value “Keep It Simple."

The process was halting at first, but a chorus started to take shape. They needed a lyric to insert between the first and last lines, and employees threw out suggestions. “Partner for success," said one. “Help us help you," was another. More phrases followed.

“These are all good ideas," Banks said encouragingly. “We’re just trying to find the best one." (That was a tad generous.)

Eventually the group settled on a chorus: “Gonna get you through it, Kick that cloud to Kicksaw, and keep it simple, stupid."

It didn’t quite rise to the drama of country music staples like heartbreak and regret, but still, the group whooped and clapped. “We need to just walk it across the street to Sony now," said Banks, referring to one of the dozens of publishing companies lining the streets nearby. “Straight to Reba?" someone piped up.

These cultural references don’t always pop

Technical jargon and corporate-speak sometimes flummoxed the songwriters. In a small room fitted out in dark velvet and shimmery streamers, songwriter Jay Knowles (credits: George Strait, Blake Shelton, Raffi) tried to kick up the country quotient, encouraging his group to use more ‘gonna’ and ‘momma’ for a song about the company value “Own It."

References to “client orgs" and “lightning web components" made their way into the lyrics. “I don’t know what any of this means," Knowles murmured, shaking his head.

“This makes me remember that I like people," Knowles said later of his corporate gigs. Each group has shy people, gregarious people, and that guy who played in a rock band in high school who’s eager to show off his chops. “I’ve never had a job, and I imagine that is what’s awesome and terrible about working in an office, is all the different personality types showing up in different ways."

When art meets commerce in this way, you learn the rules as you go, he added. “I did one for a paper supply company, and no one wanted to mention Dunder Mifflin," he said, referring to the fictional firm at the heart of the NBC sitcom “The Office." “It’s like the unwritten rule that on a tour bus, you never play ‘Spinal Tap’ because it’s too on the nose. So we sang about how good the paper is and how their supply chain is better."

Engaging your audience

Kirsch launched Kidbilly Music, his corporate team-building business, in 2008, after Napster, then iTunes and Spotify started to make songwriting a less-than-viable career.

As one of his many side gigs, he performed at songwriter showcases at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. He’d explain the origins of a song he’d written, then engage the audience of mostly out-of-towners by slapping together a song out of banter with the tourists: “Where are you from? Boston? What do you do in Boston?"

It was a change from his typical writing process, he said. “It used to take me up to a year to write a song, sweating over the perfect line." By contrast, “this was 20 minutes of pulling a song out of people, and I found it, viscerally, an adrenaline hit."

Kirsch’s brother, a successful businessman, suggested he turn that rush into a revenue stream by guiding high-paying corporate teams through the exercise.

He put together a business plan, got a few gigs and slowly built a roster of clients. “I was in my mid-40s and I’d never heard the term ROI," Kirsch said. In the past few years, he has done songwriting gigs with companies ranging from Microsoft and Apple to Southwest Airlines, Verizon and Harley-Davidson.

From wallflower to center stage

After all four Kicksaw teams performed for the whole crowd to cheers and waving arms, the judges—mostly Kicksaw investors—conferred. They eventually crowned “Own It" the winner.

Even skeptics like Ian McQuade, a Kicksaw engineer based in Salt Lake City, were won over.

“I went into it thinking it would be kind of lame, a cheesy corporate bonding experience," he said.

By the end, the 33-year-old, who a co-worker later described as “very reserved" on Zoom calls, was the featured beatboxer on the “Keep It Simple" song. He improvised a few bars of drumbeats for a cheering audience before the team launched into the final chorus:

The judges were impressed. “I love the combination of country and beatbox," one said in his post-performance feedback. “That’s a rare combo."

Write to Lauren Weber at Lauren.Weber@wsj.com

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