Steve Schnur may have the best job on Earth. As the leader of EA Sports’ music division, he has the privilege of selecting the soundtrack for FIFA, the world’s most popular video game franchise. Imagine throwing a massive party for an impossibly diverse group of friends from every continent, then trying to pick songs everyone will love. It's the kind of pressure only a music nerd could love. We asked Steve a little about his world.
Thanks for agreeing to chat with us. I have to ask (on behalf of all the sports-, music- and gaming-obsessed people of the world) how on Earth did you end up in this job?
You’ve got to understand that, when I joined EA in 2001, music in video games was almost an afterthought. Got a sports game? Just license “We Will Rock You” and Gary Glitter and call it a day. Games were barely on record labels’ radar—much less that of artists and management—and putting new music into games was virtually unheard of. EA changed all that.
Over the past 15 years via franchises like Madden, Need For Speed, Burnout, NBA Live and FIFA, my team and I took videogame music from being low-impact licensing arrangements to becoming an integral part of a new artist’s launch and established superstars’ next level. Today, EA soundtracks are the sound of a seismic shift in the way music defines global culture and vice versa.
We re-wrote the rules and changed the game. For almost 20 years, I’ve worked my ass off to turn that tide. But every day, I also realize that I’m one of the luckiest guys in the business.
For sure. Is it true you interned at MTV in the very early days of the channel? How wild was that for a young man?
My first morning as a research intern led to an invitation to join the programming department that same afternoon, and it changed not only my career path but my life as well. Working with visionaries like Les Garland, John Sykes, Bob Pittman and Tom Freston. Building a new medium from the ground up. Being free to change the way music from every genre could be discovered at a single destination.
Add Michael Jackson into Heavy Rotation? Absolutely. Mötley Crüe, too? Hell, yeah. Debuting Madonna. Introducing The Cure. Seeing the global cultural impact of our efforts almost overnight. Quite simply, it was where I realized the importance of tossing out the old rules and re-writing new ones every day. It’s also where I first learned what could happen at a Crüe after-party.
Oh, I bet you did. You once called the music for the FIFA video games a “Playlist for the World.” What did you mean by that?
With FIFA 17, we’re talking about nearly 15 million games localized in 18 languages and available in more than 50 countries. It’s a soundtrack that includes about 50 tracks representing more than 15 nations. We’ve got rock, EDM, hip-hop and folk-pop, and a couple of acts that defy conventional genre labels. Most importantly, any given song in the game—whether it's a new track by an established act or the debut of a completely unknown artist—will be heard and identified around the world nearly 1 billion times.
That is mind-boggling. So tell us a little about your process for assembling the soundtrack each year? I mean, there are a million songs to choose from so how does the vetting work? What qualities make a song FIFA-worthy? And how do you balance all those cultures and musical genres to create one coherent soundtrack?
My staff and I come from similar backgrounds in A&R and music marketing, but we all have diverse music tastes and different international contacts. And because we have the opportunity to re-write geographical and musical borders every year, the music we choose has to travel, has to move the needle, and has to do it all on a worldwide scale. Bottom line: our prime objective is to listen locally and think globally.
We spend nearly a year on this soundtrack, working closely with international labels, publishers and artists. Certainly we get essential input from EA offices around the world. We follow no genre restrictions and obey no regional quotas. Most of all, we use our ears and trust our gut. Like the nature of FIFA itself, we want to create a soundtrack of unpredictable excitement where anything can happen.
So, without further ado, tell us about the music for the new FIFA 17 game. Any personal favorites (I’m loving Declan McKenna and Balkan Beat Box) or stories behind the songs?
I think we’ve re-set the bar with this one. We’ve got debut tracks by Beck, Kasabian, Bishop Briggs, Ceci Bastida feat. Aloe Blacc, Sofi Tukker, Souls, Systema Solar, Barns Courtney and HUNTAR. There are amazing songs from Two Door Cinema Club, Kygo, Bastille, Phantogram, Zhu and Glass Animals. We’re introducing breakthrough artists like Bob Moses, Skott, KAMAU and LOYAL, and there’s tracks produced exclusively for the game by Paul Kalkbrenner and Zedd & Grey. Gamers may be surprised by some of our choices, but the flow absolutely works.
I’m also proud of the original score by Atticus Ross – best known for his movie collaborations with Trent Reznor, including GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, GONE GIRL and THE SOCIAL NETWORK – on "The Journey," which is the game’s new cinematic interactive feature.
I love that Declan McKenna track, too. We’ve had our eye on him since he won the Glastonbury Festival's Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, and certainly his song ‘Brazil’ became an important cultural comment in recent years. And Balkan Beat Box is one of those acts that is custom-made for a FIFA soundtrack; it’s Eastern European Underground Dub Punk Klezmer Hip-Hop Reggae by way of Brooklyn and Tel Aviv. They sound like no other band out there, and I am really excited for people to discover them.
Me too! I’ve been into a lot of these geo-hybrid bands in recent years. (Another favorite is Buraka Som Sistema from Angola via Portugal.) You seem to relish in picking obscure or up-and-coming bands. (Past examples: Bomba Estereo, Coasts, Seinabo Sey, Raury) Is that deliberate and what bands have you put on the soundtrack that went on to find great fame afterwards?
My first FIFA soundtrack was FIFA 2003, which we started working on in late 2001. It had 14 songs by then-unknown artists I believed in including Avril Lavigne, Timo Maas and Idlewild. In the next year’s edition, we introduced Kasabian, The Raveonettes and Kings of Leon to European audiences. FIFA 2004 was also the year that Radiohead (who were notoriously reluctant to license their music to anyone) wanted to be part of the soundtrack simply because they had become such huge fans of what was happening with the game.
In the 15 years since, we’ve introduced The Black Keys, Franz Ferdinand, Foster The People, Ladytron, Robyn, Shiny Toy Guns, Damian Marley, Airborne Toxic Event, K’naan, Chromeo, MGMT, Lykke Li, Bloc Party, The Ting Tings, Matt & Kim, The Temper Trap, Two Door Cinema Club, Grouplove, Imagine Dragons, Kimbra, CHVRCHES and plenty more. Introducing new bands via FIFA—and watching them become huge acts in large part from their exposure in the game—is an ongoing legacy that my team and I are hugely proud of.
It should be. Two things that make me all sappy and emotional are music and sports—I love that both have the ability to unite people and bring out incredible passion. (At its best, the tech world I operate in does the same thing.) Tell me about the emotional component the music adds to the game.
With every song we choose, there needs to be an element of emotional lift that will maximize gameplay, as well as how it fits into what will be months of a repeated soundtrack experience. That’s why a good mix is essential. You’d think that artists like Beck and Two Door Cinema Club would clash with Australian EDM or Canadian hip-hop, but we make it work. But it goes beyond that: I want Britpop fans to discover Scandinavian singer/songwriter Skott or the trippy vibe of New York’s Phantogram. I’m looking forward to fans of Germany’s Digitalism or Norwegian DJ Kygo getting into the Canadian duo Bob Moses. The diversity of the music absolutely matters, as does how it enhances the game, as well as representing what we believe to be emerging artists, genres and international music scenes. FIFA is the World Cup of soundtracks!
When I throw a party, I make an awesome playlist and then my friends ruin everything by making me play stuff they like. Does this happen to you with FIFA? In other words, do you get feedback from lots of people telling you what songs would be perfect for it or which ones you picked and they hated?
There’s always going to be a few armchair A&R goalies out there, though the feedback we get from gamers and players alike is consistently positive. But for me, the very best reactions come from stadium crowds. Because of our partnership with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association, our soundtrack music is played at league-sanctioned matches around the world. We are literally the sound of the global FIFA season. And hearing 50,000 fans in a stadium simultaneously react to a K’naan song that we first introduced in the game is the most amazing feedback ever.
I can only imagine. Thanks, Steve, and congrats on the release of the new game. On to FIFA 18!
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Gavin O'Hara is the Director of Lenovo's Brand Newsroom.