Steve Schnur – Electronic Arts’ President of Music
For the past two decades, it’s undeniable that video games have made a profound impact on culture and entertainment across a number of generations. However, beyond being a primary source of entertainment for youth culture, video games have played a pivotal role in developing this generation’s music taste. From EA Sports titles like Madden and FIFA, to Rockstar’s open world classic Grand Theft Auto, the music curated in these and other like minded titles is seemingly driving people’s musical interest, and it’s even changing the sonic landscape of live sporting events.
This year’s Madden 22 became the first in the series to have an official soundtrack paired with the release, one which features the likes of Jack Harlow, Swae Lee, Tierra Whack, Moneybagg Yo, BRS Kash and more. This playlist and other EA game soundtracks like NHL 22 and FIFA 22, were designed with the sole intention of bringing new and prominent artists to the forefront, and ultimately influencing the way in which the sport is perceived for a new generation.
Behind the music curation is Steve Schnur, EA’s president of music, who’s worked alongside his team in developing the soundtrack for EA titles for the past 20 years. Whether it’s a launch trailer for the upcoming Battlefield, or a game’s entire soundtrack, Steve’s intent in curating music has always been to bring something new to the forefront. With these intentions, Steve has helped launch the careers of many now successful artists, by way of featuring them in video games. Bands like Avenged Sevenfold or Green Day wouldn’t necessarily have gotten the mass exposure they did early on, if it wasn’t for being featured in popular franchises like Madden. This is all something the music industry has taken note of, as now more than ever artists are seeking out that FIFA or Madden feature.
Speaking more on his role as a music curator and his passion for being a music caretaker, Steve Schnur has shared his thoughts on all things video games and music.
Where did your drive for bringing lesser known artists to the forefront, specifically in the medium of video games, stem from?
That’s a great question and it probably goes back to when I was 10 or 12 years old. When I heard a band for the first time I felt enthusiastic and personally responsible to go to every human being I knew and go “oh my god, check this out!” I remember getting a Talking Heads album when I was little and playing it for all of these people, and they went “oh my god this is amazing!” That just made me feel great, not to be ‘right,’ but I was always concerned about art, almost to the point where if something was written for the purpose of being a pop song, that was less important to me than the musician, songwriter, or composer who wrote it for the sake of art, and self-expression.
Equal to that, I was an A&R guy and a producer for record labels for quite some time, and it really used to aggravate me how many artists, how many great albums, how many great composers weren’t given the opportunity. I’m a firm believer that people want to hear what’s next, they want to hear what’s new, they want to be apart of music and they want to be apart of where music is going. They don’t want to be nostalgic necessarily and always stuck in the past. I felt that the real estate of video games was kind of like MTV was in the 80’s and like radio was in the 70’s — the audience hungered for something that was new, young, and next generation minded of them. The concept wasn’t new, the opportunity to have the real estate to connect those dots and bring music to where people were, versus forcing them to where they’re not.
I don’t know many 15 to 25 year old people that go to radio as their source anymore. Their calling card, their t-shirt, their virtual bumper sticker is FIFA or Grand Theft Auto, it’s not [insert radio station name]. It was ludicrous that so many of these gatekeepers were interfering, and what happened was that by initially and continually utilizing the real estate of EA Sports games, the change of the sport happened. Because what it used to be, I always use the same reference but I think it’s still strong, Queen’s “We Are The Champions” was not necessarily the theme song to sports for a 20 year old. It just isn’t. What’s the theme song to American Football or the theme song to Football Soccer? Usually now, it starts by hearing something in a video game.
I can speak from experience when I was a young playing Madden 2006. That game influenced a lot of my musical taste with regards to newer metal bands at the time like Bullet For My Valentine and Avenged Sevenfold.
Here’s an Avenged Sevenfold story. Avenged Sevenfold, their manager Larry Jacobson, I used to work with him at Capital Records. He came to me in the early 2000’s and said “I have just signed on to manage an unsigned band from Orange County, would you listen to it?” knowing that I had worked with Metallica 20 years before. I flipped out, it was musical, it had the potential of being loved by so many, it was just accessible. I think I maybe put [Avenged Sevenfold] in six or seven games, and from that they got a publishing deal, from that they got a record deal, and they were unsigned 100% except for a manager.
That was one of the early success stories we had, so to hear you telling me in 2006 you heard them in Madden, that was my goal. If Larry, their Manager, had hypothetically sent in an Avenged Sevenfold track in the early 2000’s out to radio, I’m not saying they wouldn’t have broken out, because great bands hopefully always rise to the top, but they certainly wouldn’t have had the level of mass exposure they had, to the point where you’re recalling it 15 years later.
What’s your general philosophy when it comes to finding and showcasing a particular new artist in a game? How do you decide on whether or not a song or artists fits into the picture?
It’s exciting and fulfilling and burdensome at the same time, and when I say burdensome it’s a burden we carry that I’m grateful to have. We look at thousands and thousands of songs, and it’s different from the early days when I had to go and convince people. Now, a lot of it is sent to us. So what does the future of football, soccer, or hockey sound like? Will this song change the sound of the sport, is it going to be played today or will it be played tomorrow where the Rangers play? It’s a matter of musical forecasting, it’s a matter of what we think we can be apart of, grow and influence. I don’t want radio stations not to play the songs in Madden, I don’t want other game companies not to like the songs in Madden, because I want to be apart of launching it and looking back and saying “we had an influence.”
A fairly recent example of a less popularized band getting featured is Idles with their song “War,” which was featured in the trailer for Battlefield 2042. How are EA trailers approached when it comes to showcasing music and artists?
The real estate that’s important is not just in-game only, trailers are a huge way to ignite awareness for a song or artist. I think what makes trailers so unique is the ways we can have composers work with songwriters and take songs into a different level. I think probably one of the better examples is when we launched Battlefield 1, and we had [The White Stripes’] “Seven Nation Army,” which everybody knows but the way that it was integrated into the score of the trailer made it not just one of the most viewed game trailers in history, but it also made Jack White look at the space differently.
There’s a lot of trailers out there now where there’s an old song and they redo it in a unique way, so there’s really nothing new about that anymore. The question is how special is it? Usually if it’s tied with a game and done well it can ignite the internet, and it can ignite YouTube like no other medium. So your example is a great example of where it’s the same philosophy. We seek things that can be integrated and can turn people on to something great. It’s a little more challenging with trailers because trailers are tied to picture. In-game is not necessarily always tied to picture, but as long as we can be creative and serve the picture well, and make the right choice on a band that we’re in love with, that’s a great thing.
Based off your position and experience at EA, have you found that labels and artists alike are now well aware of the opportunities within video games? Or is the music industry somewhat playing catchup, with regards to seeing the exposure and opportunities within the gaming industry?
It depends on who you’re asking. I can tell you that I started in late 2001, and at the time Interscope Records was all over me. They saw the opportunity like they invented it, and in the best of ways. Same can be said for Atlantic records, they were all over me back then but there were a lot of people that didn’t get it. Artists always got it, I mean some got it more than others, but no artist didn’t get it. This is in all genres by the way, from Avenged Sevenfold to Snoop Dog, to Busta Rhymes 20 years ago. I never had to convince artists about the value of the real estate, number one because they’re gamers, and number two because they’re on the front lines and they can see that all of their fans are gamers. There’s no middleman, to them that was the aspiration. It wasn’t just being a young artist and saying “how am I going to get on the local radio station I grew up on,” it was “I’ve been growing up on Madden, how do I get in Madden?” That was the bar, and that was the bar even 20 years ago.
Snoop Dog and Busta, Hip-Hop stars of the early 2000’s, they were all over us to write the songs for NBA Live 2004. I finally put Snoop in Madden 3 years ago, and he kidded me with saying “that took long enough.” So I think the ‘catching up,’ for lack of a better term, is suddenly there are opportunities we didn’t have before. To put ‘x’ amount of million people to see Travis Scott in Fortnite is something we couldn’t have even imagined 12 years ago. The music industry woke up somewhat in the last two years when they were seeing numbers they couldn’t even imagined existed, but gamers know that these numbers are nothing new.