Where Music & Video Games Meet: EA's Music Chief on Pairing Country With 'Madden' & Radiohead With 'FIFA'

Rainer Hosch
“Loyalty, unconditional respect and love for each other is important to a team,” says Schnur, photographed Oct. 6 at Electronic Arts in Los Angeles. “With my [staff], we’ve been through marriages and divorces and births. We lean on each other ... and laugh and argue like hell about music.”

The global appellation in Steve Schnur’s title isn’t just for show. In any given month, Electronic Arts’ worldwide executive and president of music ping-pongs across multiple time zones visiting the company’s campuses — in Sweden, London, Texas, Canada and other locations — and finding untapped music for top sports franchises like the FIFA soccer series, Madden NFL (100 million units sold) and NBA Live, actioners like the robot shooter Titanfall, theater-of-war epic Battlefield and the dystopian Mirror’s Edge. EA’s net revenue for fiscal 2016 was nearly $4.6 billion for game sales across all major platforms — Forbes estimated total U.S. revenue for video games at $23.5 billion in 2015 — the year that one of EA’s biggest successes, Star Wars: Battlefront, with 14 million units shipped, was the first title released in a long-term deal with Disney. EA is continually toggling with Activision for status as the world’s No. 1 video game publisher (the companies measure up differently on different platforms), but it dominates the sports sector, which Schnur, 50, and his eight-member team have fashioned into a powerhouse platform for breaking new acts.

A classically trained musician, Schnur played guitar and keyboards with rock and jazz bands as a teenager before going on to formal studies at the University of Southern California and New York University. While there, an internship at MTV led to a job offer by Les Garland, launching Schnur’s career as an A&R rep and marketing executive for labels including Elektra, Arista and Chrysalis. While at Capitol, he tried his hand as a film music supervisor — a role that put him on the shortlist when EA decided to become the first video game company to start a music division in 2001.

As he walked into the company’s Vancouver offices for a meeting with then-EA Studios president Don Mattrick, Schnur recalls, “It was noisy and energetic and there were people in their early 20s everywhere — I hadn’t felt that energy since the ’80s.” EA, Mattrick admitted, wanted to launch a music department but didn’t know how. Schnur, who now has offices in Los Angeles and Nashville, would have carte blanche. Says the divorced father of three: “The opportunity to build from the ground up with those spectacular properties was unfathomable.”

Gaming and music have evolved dramatically since you joined EA. What was your role in that change?

Back then, games dabbled in music, using mostly in-house composers, and the result was that Casio, Good-Humor-truck sound. EA wanted to take it up 20 notches. So during my first years here, I decided to find a bunch of bands no one had heard of — Kings of Leon, Franz Ferdinand, Avenged Sevenfold and Avril Lavigne, whose first gig was playing in the cafeteria at EA Canada.

So you see sports games like FIFA and Madden as platforms to break acts?

If you’re one of 40 or 50 bands that get into FIFA or Madden, the amount of people that listen to you is incredible. We know that 41-plus percent of all time spent on a game is in the front end, playing the menus, and that’s where the music is. So if you’re a kid spending 100 hours playing a game, that’s a pretty big audience. More than 54 million unique players engaged with EA Sports console titles this past year.

EA just opened a Nashville outpost. What was the strategy behind that?

It’s just me sharing office space with Guy Oseary’s Maverick, but our presence is more than physical. From an orchestral point of view, Nashville is up there with New York, Los Angeles and London, so we’re recording all our scores there. When I first got to Nashville, in 1994, it was a country music town; now Jack White and Justin Timberlake are my neighbors.

Is country a good fit with games?

Yes, in particular with Madden football. We put the song “Time to Get Dirty” from Brantley Gilbert’s new album, which hasn’t come out yet, on Madden; and we used a Blake Shelton song from his latest album, May’s If I’m Honest, and based on that, he made it a single.

How do composers fit in the game-music spectrum?

Real composers and recorded orchestras are important to me. The first composer we hired was Michael Giacchino for Medal of Honor, who at that point had only done video games and went on to win the Oscar for Up; he’s scoring the next Star Wars — taking over for John Williams — as well as the Star Trek films. Chris Lennertz (Bad Moms, The Boss) and Ramin Djawadi (Game of Thrones) also worked on the series. [Devo co-founder and film/TV composer for The Lego Movie and Rugrats] Mark Mothersbaugh was our first Sims composer. We took a chance on a relative unknown named Gordy Haab, and the greatest piece of press I ever saw said that Star Wars: Battlefront had the best Star Wars score that John Williams didn’t write.

What are your budgets like?

Our overall music budget is about 1 percent of the budget for the game, which is the same as with feature films. [Typically, big studio games cost $75 to $120 million to develop, with marquee titles tipping toward $200 million.] In terms of composer salaries, we’re comparable to features, maybe a little more. Films are paying less, and there’s a lot of all-in funds, where composers are expected to record and orchestrate everything on their own based on what they’re paid. And I don’t think TV ever paid very much to begin with. The big difference is film and TV offer performance royalties, and our contracts for original music are work-for-hire — we own it 100 percent — although for ancillary sales like soundtracks and licensed use, we pay royalties. One of our proudest “gets” was Radiohead, who are notoriously reluctant to license their music to anyone — but wanted to be part of FIFA.

What is the pitch to get artists to forgo royalties?

Artists want to be a part of EA soundtracks [because] we have become what radio or MTV used to be, the universal destination where the discovery of new music is guaranteed. Consider, for example, that any given song in FIFA 17 — 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. No medium in the history of recorded music has delivered such massive and instantaneous global exposure.

Any advice for someone starting out who’s interested in placing music in visual media?

The contract for the first film I supervised, Gun Shy, was for one dollar. I’d never done a film, and I came into the project sort of late. They said, “There has to be some compensation,” and I said, “I’ll do it for a buck.” That contract is on my wall because it reminds me you don’t do it for the money — ever. You do it and the money comes. Gun Shy came and went in maybe 14 cities, but it opened doors for me. My second film, Miss Congeniality, paid a lot more. 

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.