Meet The Guy Who Puts The Music In Your Video Games
The new best place for music discovery is the console—and it's been that way for longer than you think. Just ask Steve Schnur, EA's music chief since 2001.
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One of my favorite video games growing up was NHL 95 for Sega Genesis. For the first time, you could actually sign, release and trade players fantasy-style, or even create your own hockey star. Despite these advances, there wasn’t much change on the music front: the tunes were limited to organ renditions of songs like “Hava Nagila” and “Here We Go [Team Name], Here We Go!”
Contrast that with the soundtrack for NHL 21 on the modern equivalent of the Genesis. It’s packed with bangers both from contemporary bands like The 1975 and from up-and-comers I’ve barely heard of. That level of musicality is popping up all around the video game landscape these days; what most folks don’t seem to realize is how long this sort of thing has been happening.
One person who does is Steve Schnur, head honcho of music at Electronic Arts, the video game giant with north of $5.6 billion in annual revenues. Much of that cash comes thanks to those NHL games—and, even moreso, to far larger franchises like Madden, FIFA, The Sims and Medal of Honor. The result: a shift in the paradigm for how people, especially young ones, discover music.
“You think yesterday Z100 stopped being important to a 15-year-old dude from Jersey?” Schnur asks me. “[That guy] has been playing FIFA for 10 years … that’s where Gen Z is. They’re not listening to typical radio, waiting to discover something great.”
Schnur grew up as that kid, running up and down his Garden State cul-de-sac telling anyone who’d listen about this great new band he’d stumbled across: Led Zeppelin. He studied the music business at NYU before going on to work for MTV and a slew of record labels.
Then, in late 2001, he got a call from EA. The company’s leaders had just begun to realize they were sitting on some valuable real estate, but didn’t know what to do with the property.
“You’re an industry that goes around saying that you’re bigger than the film industry, but you still sound like the toy industry,” Schnur recalls telling them. “There’s nostalgia, I get it. But that doesn’t mean [EA] has to continue to have employees playing Casios creating scores.”
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There had been a few instances of music being licensed for video games in the 1990s, but never on a grand scale. After a few months, Schnur began to change that.
He convinced Snoop Dogg to write original lyrics and got producer Just Blaze to create beats for NBA Live in 2003. The following year, he persuaded Kings of Leon to make music for FIFA. By the end of the aughts, these video games were starting to become the audiovisual equivalent of Jock Jams—with the reach that MTV once had. And, unlike terrestrial radio, EA actually paid up.
Though Schnur won’t comment on the sorts of sums handed out for the company’s licensing agreements, he confirms that the outlay for music on a big video game isn’t dissimilar for that of a feature film: 1-2% of the budget. That can add up to millions for a blockbuster title.
Even more valuable is the exposure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s attracted more than a few opportunists over the years.
“Bands have come to us and said—or their managers said—‘What’s it take to get in?’” says Schnur. “And the answer is ‘no,’ because number one is the authenticity of the process. … We license every song. I believe that if you use other people’s intellectual property, you pay for that usage.”
Two decades ago it took a herculean effort to get contemporary music into video games. Somewhere in the middle, the medium served as a mirror of what happened to be hot. And now, the tail is wagging the dog, if recent deals are any indication.
The new Madden 22 soundtrack, which features artists from Jack Harlow to Tierra Whack, was released in partnership with Interscope Records—and the NFL itself. As part of the arrangement, the album’s tracks will be played in stadiums and on broadcasts throughout the season.
So instead of transferring outdated tunes from arena organs to gamers’ ears, video games are now essentially determining what gets played in the stadium.
“Sports doesn’t need to sound like your parents,” says Schnur. “It doesn’t need to sound like people in the Budweiser suite. I’d rather have Madden sound like what the players in the locker room are going to listen to.”
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