Postcard from Maui: Using music to create meaningful connections

Andy Sharpe is the founder and CEO of SongDivision, a globally recognised company called on by Fortune 500’s, governments and associations in over 30 countries to strengthen corporate culture using music. First moving to the UK in 1993 with a rock band, Andy now lives on Maui. He has a special message for those looking to help the island rebuild after the wildfires in August.

What is SongDivision and what do you do?

SongDivision helps teams bond through music. Since 2003, we’ve helped thousands of organisations around the world strengthen connections between their people and communicate key ideas. We’re the pioneers of songwriting-based team building – groups write and perform completely original songs based on what’s important to them, from core values to annual goals and celebrating major milestones.

Our musician facilitators are the best on the planet, having worked with everyone from Miley Cyrus to David Bowie, Adele, Drake and Prince, and our clients are from all corners, including Google, AstraZeneca, KPMG and Rolls-Royce to name a few, along with non-corporates like the Australian, UK and Swiss Governments and the National Association of Realtors in the USA. 

Group sizes start from about 25, the average is 500, and the largest has been 100,000 – the ‘Dreamforce’ event for Salesforce in San Francisco. We’re about to hit our busiest time of the year, January to March is ‘company kick-off season’ where our teams are like ‘The Roots’ from Jimmy Fallon, tying the large meetings and conferences together with music – playing speakers on stage, and running team building programs like our ‘Song Slam’, where the company is split into three of four groups, each one writes an original song, then they perform it to each other in a ‘Battle of the Bands’ as their own entertainment at the Gala Dinner, backed by the awesome SongDivision bands.

When did you start living overseas, and why did you decide to start SongDivision?

My journey into starting SongDivision was a unique one. It all began when I was studying law at Sydney Uni, and the rock band I’d been in since early high school was signed by AC/DC’s label and I moved to the UK. This was during the Britpop era and I lived there from 1993-1998. I eventually returned to Australia after the band split.

After my music endeavours, I found myself working at IBM in their Global Financing Division, where I gained an MBA and invaluable exposure to events, team building, L&D and incentive experiences (all of which SongDivision is very much involved in today). While at IBM, I continued to pursue my passion for music by writing songs for pop stars in Australia. It was during this time that I was asked by Yothu Yindi to run songwriting workshops with indigenous teenagers at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. During these workshops, we collaborated to create original songs that were inspired by their own stories and interests. Like our clients today, the majority of the teens had little to no musical experience – but the process of composing and performing music together with a little help from professional musicians had a profound impact on them, fostering a sense of unity and self-expression.

A friend who ran a telecommunications company approached me with a request to provide a similar musical experience for his leadership team.  I initially said no, “I’m not a team building guy!” But he was very persistent, so I took the team into a top recording studio with Australia’s best session musicians, where they had the opportunity to write and perform an original song together. This unique experience turned out to be the catalyst for the founding of SongDivision in 2004. Our first year was characterised by steady growth rather than explosive success – it takes hard work and incremental progress to build a business. Resilience and persistence is everything!

What have been some of the milestones and highlights for you?

Music-based team building: A group of 200 from a leading Australian public company onstage at the State Theatre in Sydney, performing the original song they’d just written together.

SongDivision’s unique offering brought opportunities internationally with high-end corporate clients. We established companies in the UK, Singapore, and USA, often initiating expansion by booking events for existing multinational clients in new countries.

Expanding into the US presented its own set of challenges, especially during the 2008 financial crisis when many events were being cancelled due to the recession. My wife and fellow Aussie, Marsha Sharpe, runs the business with me, and we moved to New York that year. We managed to find success by providing music-based solutions to companies facing communication and strategy issues, demonstrating the power of music to connect and engage people in even the most challenging business environments. Just months after Lehman Brothers had failed, we delivered a 3,000 person program for Novo Nordisk in Miami – Malcolm Gladwell was our support act!

One of the significant milestones for SongDivision was our collaboration with Virgin Airlines on various occasions, including a special event featuring Sir Richard Branson. The goal of this event was to personalise the meet and greet between Richard and the thousands of employees. Employees were invited to submit lyrics about what they loved about Virgin, which we then used to create a special song for the occasion. If your lyrics made the final song, you joined Richard and the SongDivision band onstage. The big outdoor crowd sang their very own song to the big man himself – the opening line of the Barry White-styled funk song was “My parents told me I should be a surgeon, I said: no way, I’m working for Virgin!”

How did your business change during the pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought about significant changes to our business. We’ve been a remote working company since 2004, but all of SongDivision’s work was in-person up until January 2020. We swiftly adapted by embracing virtual events – we started running free virtual happy hours for our client communities (think ‘Rockwiz’ and ‘Spicks & Specs’), and they quickly caught on – fortunately for us, the power of music, along with the talent of our musicians and the processes we’d been refining for two decades, worked online – the main game was ‘connection’, and the common response we received was “That’s easily the best time I’ve had on Zoom!” 

We delivered over 2,000 virtual events across the lockdowns, and virtual is still an important part of our business. We work with remote teams throughout the year, and then are brought in for the big in-person events. The pandemic forced us to innovate and find new ways to engage our clients, and next we’ll see technological advancements like AI and virtual reality continue to enhance our ability to create unique and interactive musical experiences.

Next up for us is the launch in early 2024 of a six-part L&D program –  ‘Team Harmony’.  The training occupies a unique space – it’s both a leadership program and an immersive team building experience. Our workshops have been designed in partnership with global corporate neuroscience pioneers Synaptic Potential, to build trust and enhance interpersonal skills.  The sessions include Team Cohesion, Engagement, Feedback, Inclusion, Creativity and Storytelling. 

What’s happening in Maui and how can individuals help Maui to recover from the wildfires?

Lahaina, Hawaii. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

My wife, daughter and I moved to Maui in 2016 after 3 years in New York, and 3 years in Las Vegas setting up our teams there. We’ve faced a daunting challenge this year with the devastating wildfires in Lahaina and Kula, and so many in our community have been deeply affected by this disaster.

Maui confronts many challenges in the aftermath of the wildfires, including resource shortages, limited access to clean water, a scarcity of functional schools, increased unemployment, and housing instability. My wife Marsha has been heavily involved in our community’s recovery as a board member in organisations such as the Maui Food Bank, which is providing food to those affected by the fires, and IMUA Family Services, which offers childcare and emotional support to help children and parents cope with trauma.

As West Maui and Lahaina continue to rebuild and heal, the rest of Maui and the Hawaiian Islands are open for business. The local event industry and community at large needs your support so please continue to visit beautiful Maui while being respectful of those affected by the fires.

To support Maui’s recovery efforts, consider donating to:

If you lead a big team, run events, or are in the L&D function in your company, see how SongDivision can bring your people together at your next meeting or team building experience here.