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Mention the phrase "corporate rock" to music purists, and they might decry the handful of major labels that control much of the pop-music marketplace or complain about the co-opting of hit songs for use in advertising. But for some Baby Boomers and Generation Xers, who grew up playing rock and pop music and are now in the business world, corporate rock can mean strapping on their guitars and picking up their drumsticks once again -- this time, to bring the music from the barroom to the boardroom.
These musicians-turned-businesspeople are part of a surprisingly large number of rock bands formed by corporate employees to perform at their companies' business events and charity functions. The trend is widespread enough that there's even an annual Battle of the Corporate Bands, sponsored by Fortune magazine and held at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Over the past four years, the list of entrants has included dozens of in-house bands representing businesses ranging from manufacturers such as Harley-Davidson and Briggs & Stratton to white-collar businesses such as American Express, consulting firm Marsh & McLennan and California software makers PeopleSoft.
The phenomenon has found its way to St. Louis, too. Enterprise Rent-A-Car is home to the E-Rockers, a band formed in the summer of 2002 that has performed a dozen times at various company functions, both at Enterprise's headquarters in Clayton and off-site.
The current group, whose members have played music professionally at various times in their lives, includes Perry Thebeau, senior financial analyst, on guitar and vocals; Greg Miller, inventory control administrator-information systems, on drums; Tom Braun, director of analytical services, on bass; Bob Baker, employee communications senior writer, on guitar and vocals; and vocalist Shauna Sconce, who works as a senior project analyst.
"Before we had our debut gig, people thought it was a bunch of wannabes and that we'd just slap something together," recalls Baker. But the music, and the reaction to it, was so well received that the E-Rockers have become a regular fixture at company gatherings such as holiday events and sales meetings.
The band plays what Baker calls "a variety of uptempo party music," ranging from golden oldies recorded by artists such as the Beatles and Aretha Franklin to newer songs from Santana and the Goo Goo Dolls. They rehearse on their own time, haul their own gear and sound system and hope eventually to perform at charitable events as well as at company parties and meetings.
A company social function also provided the initial impetus for the Pro Bono Blues Band, the resident combo at the St. Louis headquarters of Fleishman-Hillard, a public relations firm that crafts communications strategies for corporate giants such as Anheuser-Busch and SBC.
The band formed in January 2000 when a group of employees gathered to perform for one of the company's "FH Fridays" events. "Every month or two, we try to do something social," explains Paul Dusseault, the band's drummer and senior vice president and partner in the corporate issues and financial group. The company's Friday-afternoon get-togethers are typically informal, with snacks, beverages and occasional organized diversions like trivia contests, but for the "January Jam," the firm put up posters inviting anyone working at the firm who played an instrument to take part in collaborative music-making.
"Of course, we ended up with, like, twenty-one guitar players, three saxophonists, two bass players, five drummers -- and one sousaphone," recalls Dusseault. "With no rehearsal, we all just tumbled into our little meeting room and said, 'What do you know? What can we do?' To a lot of people's surprise, it sounded a lot like music. That's how we discovered that there were a lot of people here who have played in bands on the side or do so now.
"Afterward, one of the younger employees came up to me and said, 'That was great! It was even better than karaoke!' I told her, 'This is what people did before there was karaoke,'" Dusseault recounts with dry humor. "Apparently, she had not encountered a social event featuring live music before."
Since then, the January Jam has become an annual tradition, and the band has been called on to perform at other company events as well. From the initial hodgepodge of players, a core group eventually emerged that includes Dusseault, guitarists Marty Richter (vice president, corporate issues and financial group) and Dave Collett (vice president, corporate reputation group), saxophonist Vic Kreuiter (senior manager, creative/print group), bassist Jason Hillery (senior vice president, corporate reputation group) and vocalists Jack Farmer (senior vice president and partner, marketing communications group) and Denise Turner, an administrative assistant with FH's design group.
Like the E-Rockers, the Pro Bono Blues Band concentrates on covers, performing classic-rock favorites originally recorded by the likes of David Bowie ("We just nailed 'Suffragette City' a few weeks ago," says Dusseault), Steve Miller and ZZ Top, as well as rootsier tunes from the Band, Taj Mahal and Etta James. But the band's format is also loose enough to accommodate various guest vocalists and soloists drawn from the FH ranks at each performance.
"You work with people every day, and you have no idea what their hidden talents are," says Dusseault. "By inviting people to participate for a number or two, we keep that sense of discovery going. There's always somebody new coming. Everyone sits back and says, 'Wow, look at little Susie in accounting -- who knew she could do that?'"
The E-Rockers continue to bring out hidden talents as well. Before joining Enterprise, Bob Baker had a varied career in the entertainment business, cutting independent CDs with his bands Beat Patrol and Roomful of Jimmies, doing standup comedy and, for a decade, publishing Spotlight, a monthly newspaper covering St. Louis music and entertainment. Baker says playing in the E-Rockers has given him a chance to use the skills from his previous career to get to know many of his fellow employees. "I've found it to be an unexpected networking tool," he says. "It really surprised me as to how many people, even at the higher levels of the company, come up and talk to me about how they used to play music in a band or in church."
Networking opportunities aside, members of both bands see their musical sidelines mostly as a way to have fun while proving that they're not too old to rock & roll.
"By and large, these are guys who, if they could make a living at it, would do nothing but this," says Dusseault. "These are people who love to play music with their friends. We're just delighted we have a company environment that encourages us both to work hard and to have fun."
"Even though music is not a full-time job, it's something we all enjoy doing," agrees Baker. "This is a rare opportunity to use those musical skills and combine them with our day jobs to give something back to the company."