Fun and Games with Steve Schnur

The worldwide head of music for Electronic Arts discusses working with composers and breaking new acts.

Steve Schnur in his light- and plant-filled office

Game changer: Electronics Arts global head of music Steve Schnur’s tastes range from classical to country. (Photo: Paula Parisi / MaxTheTrax)

In a company workforce of about 8,500 employees, Steve Schnur and his team of eight stand out. While about sixty percent of those thousands are artists, sound technicians and coders who create the game experience for the dozen or so titles Electronic Arts releases each year, Schnur and his staff oversee music. That includes supervising the scores for the action-fantasy franchises and licensing songs for the sport-centric properties (though there is some crossover; shooters will occasionally have an end-credit song, or use a tune on the trailer, and the “FIFA 17” soccer release featured a narrative section – or cinematic – for which Schnur secured the services of Academy Award-winning composer Atticus Ross).

As Worldwide Executive, Music, Schnur is laser-focused on giving each project a musical landscape that enhances playability, brand-extending the concept in a way that makes gaming experience more memorable and distinguishing it from competing product. He is uniquely qualified for the task. A classical music enthusiast, he grew up in New Jersey, commuting into New York to take piano lessons at Carnegie Hall. He also learned guitar, and began performing with pop, rock and jazz bands as a teenager before going on to formal studies, first at the University of Southern California, then at NYU’s School of Music Business and Technology. While there, an internship at MTV led to a job offer by Les Garland, launching Schnur’s career. He went on to hold executive positions with Warner Music Group, EMI, BMG, Elektra, Chrysalis and Arista Nashville. While working at Capitol Records in Los Angeles, he was offered the opportunity to freelance his services as a movie music supervisor.

It was that combination of music insider savvy and film studio smarts that put him at the top of the call sheet when  EA decided to become the first video game company to start a music division in 2001. “I got a call from Terry McBride, one of the owners of [music management company] Nettwerk,” Schnur recalls. “He said, ‘You’re going to be hearing from a guy named Rusty Rueff. Take the call and take the job.’ And I was like, ‘What kind of a name is Rusty Roof? Morning drive?’” Reuff was the head of HR for Electronic Arts. “I took the job and proceeded, hopefully, to change the way games sounded.”

MaxTheTrax: Game music is pretty sophisticated now, with scores that fans purchase, and in terms of pop tunes, a promotional opportunity where placement can really boost sales . What was it like 15 years ago?

Steve Schnur: There were a lot of audio guys with the company at the time who I was going to eventually really piss off, because they had been creating music for their own games. Most of them weren’t great musicians, they just thought it was an opportunity to display their various talents. So the game companies were going around telling everyone they were bigger than the film industry, but the games sounded like something from a toy company, that old Casio sound.

In Japan, they still buy albums of that stuff.

That’s where the nostalgia of gaming comes from, that old Super Mario Bros. 8-bit sound. But EA thought there was a better way. We decided that instead of using one audio guy and a synthesizer to start looking at real composers and recording orchestras. The first composer we hired was Michael Giacchino for “Medal of Honor.” Michael Giacchino went on to win the Academy Award for Up. He’s done the Star Trek films, and he’s the first guy to take over for John Williams in a Star Wars film. He’s one of the videogame industry’s own.

And you’ve gone on to work with so many top composers.

We hired Mark Mothersbaugh, from Devo, who did the Rugrats films, as our composer for “The Sims” [staring with 2004’s “The Simms 2”], later taken over by Steve Jablonski, of the Transformers films. Ramin Djawadi, who does “Game of Thrones,” scored “Medal of Honor” starting in 2009 and up to the most recent one, “Warfighter” [2012].  I’m a massive “Game of Thrones” fan, so that was really fun. And Gordy Haab, who is certainly the next generation, just did Star Wars: Battlefront.

You also did a lot to integrate pop music.

In 2002, for  “Madden NFL” I decided to go and see if I could find a bunch of bands no one had heard of. This was 2001, when I was working on it, and we put in Good Charlotte and Andrew W.K. and a bunch of bands that went on to do pretty well. Andrew W.K., that song [“Party Hard”] still gets tons of play at sports events. We identified a girl called Avril Lavigne who — like Katy Perry many years later — played an early gig, for like 10 people, in an EA staff lounge. For FIFA, we found Kings of Leon, and Kasabian and Franz Ferdinand. Avenged Sevenfold was one of the first one or two bands we completely broke. They were unsigned when we put them in seven games over three months in 2002, and they got an EMI publishing deal, a Warners deal and went on to sell millions of records.

But while you’re constantly looking for new music, you’re also recruiting stars, like Jack White, who remixed “Seven Nation Army” for the “Battlefield 1” trailer to, which went on to become the most watched trailer in YouTube history .

With more than 32 million views. There was tremendous anticipation for the game [which first release was 2002], but we also got a certain Jack White “lift.” So the stars have a place, but our main job is to find artists that aren’t on the radar. We want to be on the growth curve. I make it my business to listen to music from all over the world. Sometimes there’s a band in Italy or Brazil that hasn’t made its way to Universal Music Group in Los Angeles yet, or is only local to them, and we want to be a part of finding and giving that band a platform. That doesn’t mean that we still won’t include a song from Bastille, or Zed – who are certainly well-known now, but weren’t when we started working with them.

Symphony musicians record video game music in very casual attire.

The London Symphony Orchestra records the score to “Star Wars: Battlefront” at Abbey Road Studios.

Is there an app you use to find global radio?

I just got a [Tesla] and it comes with something called Tunein [also available as an app] that lets you listen to radio from anywhere. Since soccer, in particular, is so international, for the FIFA titles I really want to know, when I’m told something is huge in Australia on Triple J, I want to listen to Triple J. So in my car I listen to everything from radio stations in Tel Aviv to BBC1 and 2, to French radio, to Italian radio, to Brazilian radio.

While you do quite a bit of world travel for work, you seem to mainly split your time between Los Angeles and Nashville. What goes on in Nashville?

We’re recording all our orchestral scores there. The musicians are on the same level as Los Angeles, New York and London. So much of our U.S. scoring has gone to Eastern Europe. We recorded “Star Wars: Battlefront” with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road, but we record 90% of our music in Nashville.  And I’m a country music fanatic. When I’m in L.A. I listen to Nashville radio here –  Lightning 100, which is the so-called triple-A station in Nashville, and the reason I listen to that is they’re talking about, ‘Tonight, at 3rd & Lindsley,’ and I feel like I’m there.  I first moved to Nashville in 1994, and it was great country music, but now it really can’t be defined as country only. It’s where the future points.

Are you finding country a good fit with games? 

Yes, in particular with “Madden 17” football, this year and last. Country music belongs in NFL games, but again, the same rules that we apply to everyone: it has to be new and fresh and very discoverable, and non-genre specific, because you’ve gotta figure there’s a lot of people that play Madden football that love Steve Aoki and Zed and Logic, they love hip-hop, they love electronic music and they would tell you they hate country music. But if they hear Brantley Gilbert’s new album [The Devil Don’t Sleep] – which hasn’t come out yet, but we put a song in Madden this year called “It’s About to Get Dirty” – which is rockin’, like Metallica meets country, then all bets are off. We had a brand new Blake Shelton song on Madden, and not only did he recut the lyrics for us, but we forced the next single – that shows the impact of Madden – the new Blake Shelton single, “Straight Outta Beer,” is the one that was in Madden a few months ago, but for us he changed the lyric to “Straight Outta Moonlight.”

Steve Schnur poses in black suit, no tie, holding guitar

Schnur with one of his collectible guitars. (Photo: Paula Parisi / MaxTheTrax)

What are some of your brand extensions?

We’re working with the Major League Soccer to help them figure out the sound of the sport, and the kind of things they should be playing in the stadiums.  With MLS and Coca Cola we’ve started creating player playlists. Our first one two weeks ago, “24 Under 24,” was the top 24 top soccer players under 24 and the top 24 tracks that they chose. It’s on Spotify. And it’s a perfect way to further create the community, to create a gamer community and a sports community together. While everybody is so focused on millennials, I’m more focused on the next generation, Generation C – kids 4, 6, 12, that have never had a day without a gaming device. These are kids that don’t create their own musical experiences, they share their musical experiences. They create these playlists and experiences together.

How do you listen to music?

Every CD is gone. Yes, like everyone else, I’m slowly starting to ramp up my vinyl collection. That has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with audio quality. I just got rid of cable television. I’m so excited about using PlayStation Vue. I’m not holding onto any of this. And people are still sending me CDs. I’m amazed. Every time I get a CD I immediately go to my phone and go, oh, the new Group Love album, I put it on Spotify and listen.

So you’re getting pitched all the time?

Yes – me, Raphi [Raphael Lima, music marketing] and Cybele [Pettus, music supervisor] – but we’re seeking as we’re being pitched, because what people are pitching us isn’t necessarily what we’re looking for. Our job is to find artists that aren’t on a lot of people’s radar yet. We want to be on that growth curve, and sometimes there’s a band in Italy or Brazil that hasn’t made its way to Universal Music Group in Los Angeles yet, or is only local to them, and we want to be a part of finding and giving that band a platform. We want to be part of what’s next.

Who were your musical influences growing up?

Well, my very favorite artist of all time, and I just named my car after him – when you get a Tesla, they make you pick a name – is Tom Jones. I remember my parents taking me to see him when I was a kid growing up in New Jersey, and I thought he was incredible – more than just a sound, an attitude. When I worked at the labels I used to find everybody in radio who loved Tom Jones, and I would literally fly to places he was playing and take them to the shows. So maybe not so much a musical influence, but that was an attitude influence. He was one of the reasons I gravitated away from composition and toward pop music.

Have you ever used his music in a game?

We did. In “FIFA 16” we used “It Feels Like Music”[remixed by Dutch electronic artist Junkie XL]. Somewhere we have a FIFA platinum record with a Tom Jones nameplate on it. I’m still hoping he’ll stop in and pick it up. Love him.

So I’m trying to guess if your ringtone is a Tom Jones song or something from Star Wars…

It’s Ramin Djawadi, “Game of Thrones.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.