The , a desk made out of primary-colored tangrams, plops into the center of the screen. “Welcome to Airtable,” says a generic woman in polished voiceover. A plucky left-handed piano riff builds propulsion, and the right hand breaks out in a heartfelt, uplifting solo melody. It seems like a Pixar squirrel might stumble, adorably blinking, into the screen at any minute. Instead, a whole bunch of animated screenshots explain how to use cloud-based spreadsheets.
A camera slowly zooms in on , while car designer Vincent de Labrouhe de Laborderie outlines his artistic process. “The athletic cabin from the Q3 is really unique,” he says. A plucky left-handed piano riff builds propulsion, and the right hand breaks out in a heartfelt, uplifting solo melody. Ok, maybe not a Pixar squirrel. What kind of animal would drive an Audi?
display words like flashcards: “Hey there. /You’ve probably heard of TED Talks. /But in case you haven’t… / We make those videos.” A plucky left-handed piano riff builds propulsion, and there it is: The exact same heartfelt, uplifting melody that was in the other two videos. The music is layered over clips of spirited C-suite types giving speeches in blazers, but it could be anything—a clunky animation explaining the mission of a tech services firm, a group of sweating dancers as metaphor for the determination of a small startup. It is the soundtrack of sweeping corporate appeal, so ubiquitous as to be part of the atmosphere: You could play it straight through every Super Bowl commercial break and no one would know the difference. Also: Is that a xylophone?
It was Airtable that got me. I had clicked on the demo expecting to learn to use Airtable, as one does, but was immediately sucked into the song. I had heard it before. In fact, it seemed like I had never not heard it. Airtable’s promo video was so stylistically similar to every other startup, app or otherwise technological that’s come out in the last several years that it might as well be a template for them. The plucky, almost unbearably earnest refrain actually sounded like Google, or Facebook, or Apple (or was it General Electric?).
So I Shazamed it. The song is called "Balboa." It has been licensed from , the company that manages it, 272 times. It was written by a classically trained pianist named Steven Gutheinz, who works out of a studio he built in his detached Los Angeles garage and has been writing music for more than 30 years, ever since his grandmother taught him to play piano in elementary school. Gutheinz has scored commercials, films, TV shows, and documentaries. You may recognize him as the sound of Google. And he has no idea how he got so big.
Now that every corporation whose employees breathe oxygen and expect paychecks has begun pivoting to video, music explicitly composed for backing film, also known as “synch,” has become indispensable. You can’t make a video without it, but unless you have an in-house band, you probably can’t make it. Many filmmakers buy rights to synch from licensing platforms such as MusicBed, PremiumBeats, Extreme Music, and APM. But also: People who don't know all of the intricate laws surrounding intellectual property often fudge the rules.
For example: In 2011, a crisis of copyright law essentially begot the success of MusicBed, which was, at the time, still an entrepreneurial gambit by the owner of a creative agency. Back then, it was common for wedding videographers to, let’s say “obtain,” top 40 songs for background music in nuptial reels. Then a high-end videographer, Joe Simon Films, cut the wedding of former Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo into a set to the Coldplay song “Fix You.” The video went viral on sports media. ESPN picked it up.
“All of a sudden, major labels see it and they’re like wait, that wasn’t licensed,” says Nic Carfa, vice president of artists and repertoire for MusicBed. “So this whole independent film industry gets broken open by major labels and the three top wedding filmmakers for millions of dollars.”
The story terrified lower-tier wedding filmmakers, who publicly freaked out on online forums, warning others to take down any samples and promo reels that contained unlicensed tunes. Seeing an opportunity to break in, MusicBed execs logged on and offered the panicked filmmakers one free song apiece from their archives so they could recut their major projects.
In that single month, MusicBed’s business grew by 300 percent. Less than six months later, Carfa got a tip from a musician on MusicBed’s early roster about a new guy they just had to sign—a guy who used real instruments, rather than the midis or synths that were popular among commercial musicians at the time. Across the industry, a slide was beginning away from jingles and toward emotional, story-driven ads that looked more like films. Ads like that would be perfect work for this guy, a classically trained pianist who had wanted to make music for movies ever since discovering famed film scorer James Horner, who created the raw, passionate soundtracks to Braveheart, Titanic and Avatar.
The guy’s name was Steven Gutheinz.
Would you believe that when Gutheinz told me he was represented by a company called MusicBed, I at first heard “MusicBag”? The phone connection wasn’t great, and I wrote it down wrong, and when I later couldn’t find any company named MusicBag, I called an entirely different licensing company called MusicBox.
Will Bangs, the founder and creative director of MusicBox, kindly informed me that he didn’t work with Gutheinz, but happened to be giving a webinar on sonic branding that very night, which he would happily summarize to help me understand the broad appeal of Gutheinz's work. He told me that music typically comes at the very end of the process, a sort of advertising afterthought. “They probably already have an idea of the mood and tone of the spot—if it’s going to be a comedy or pull at your heartstrings,” he said. Also: Most ads are 15 or 30 seconds, which means the songs need to be tailored to create emotion in that timeframe. They have to naturally wax and wane in a way that is different than popular music. “It’s not very easy to take a portion of a preexisting two minute and 30 second song and have it feel like it fits,” Bangs says.
For many ads, the best strategy is to request custom music. You show up with a brief and request a demo from a couple of synch creators. Gutheinz does this prolifically—his custom work is itself absolutely everywhere, which may be part of the reason his song in the Airtable ad sounded so familiar. But strangely, "Balboa" was not written for synch at all. It is 2 minutes and 50 seconds long and appears both on Gutheinz's Soundcloud and his 2016 album Vision.
“['Balboa'] was just something I wrote on my own for myself because I wanted to write it. I had no expectation of use in commercials or any kind of monetary gain from it,” Gutheinz says. He had simply put the song up for sale on MusicBed because he always does that—when you’re a practicing musician in 2019, why not take income where you can get it?
"Balboa" was actually the second time a song Gutheinz put on MusicBed as an afterthought completely blew up. The first one, "Wallflower," has been licensed about 150 times, four of them by Google, which used it in a series of spots that are probably the actual templates of the modern tech ad—poignant family dramas told through rapid cycling closeups of screens. It was, maybe, the moment Steven Gutheinz became the sound of an advertising era.
“I feel like I owe a lot to whoever it is at Google who used that piece, because I believe they were the first company—like tech company—to use my music. Then it’s Google. I mean they’re huge,” Gutheinz says. Google tried to find me someone to talk to for this article but eventually declined, “primarily because our commercials come from lots of different teams at Google and finding the one person who can speak to the appeal of this music in the first place has been like finding a needle in a haystack,” a spokesperson said.
I did get to talk to someone at Airtable though, the company’s very smart, advertising industry-obsessed CEO Howie Liu, who was almost more excited to learn that there was a musical mastermind authoring the modern sound of advertising than he was to promote his own company. Liu said he and his staff chose "Balboa" for their demo video after Googling around for royalty-free music and finding a few tracks they thought were upbeat and compelling, but not so compelling as to overpower the voiceover. “I don’t think we took the decision with all that much gravitas. I don’t want to portray this as this heavy debate—like 12 Angry Jurors getting into a room and duking it out,” he says.
“If you go to these stock music sites, and you just click around and listen to some of the tracks, a lot of them are just garbage from a musical composition standpoint. They’re simplistic and have no musical complexity,” Liu says. “I think 'Balboa' at least had a little bit more complexity to it. There’s a layering in of more instruments throughout the piece, and there’s kind of this narrative arc.” The song naturally timed well with the promotion of the product, he said.
One theory about the popularity of both "Wallflower" and "Balboa," advanced by the video editor who made the mashups for this very article, is that there’s a certain mathematicalness to Gutheinz’s songs that makes them simple to work with when you're cutting and recutting video footage. They swell at the right times. They just make videos better. It seems that whether he intends to or not, Gutheinz simply makes music that is built for 30-second films.
As for the influence of Google, Liu says it wasn’t an explicit factor in Airtable’s decision to use the song, although he does think a good marketer must, by necessity, be aware of what everyone else is doing, and it's possible that unconsciously influenced the decision. “Frankly we didn’t even know who Steven was, so we didn’t pay attention to the fact that he was the same composer as in some of these Google ads,” Liu says. But that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t hire someone for that very reason: He chose the voiceover artist for the same video because she had previously appeared in ads for Nest. Her name is . And she’s who I’ll be Googling next.