EA's Longtime Music Chief on the Power and Legacy of Songs and Scores in Video Games

Our chat with Steve Schnur

Since 1983, when he arrived in the media-sphere at MTV, Steve Schnur has helped orchestrate huge changes across the entertainment landscape. For parts of four decades, he's called the tune, fusing art and commerce with an unerring ear for the next addition to the soundtrack of our lives. 

Back in the day, at MTV's programming division, he pushed the network to air videos from artists like Madonna, Michael Jackson and the Cure, boosting the network's bandwidth as an arbiter of Reagan-era chill. 

"I was the college intern jumping up and down on the couch saying, 'We need to play Mötley Crüe! We need to play the Cure!'" Schnur tells Muse. "My boss, Les Garland, the head of programming, was one of the few who said, 'Listen to the kid.' There were a lot of adults in the room, and everybody was digging the umpteen old-man white bands they liked. The bottom line is, it didn't speak to youth culture. It needed to be young. It needed to be bold."

After leaving MTV, Schnur took a dizzying ride on the turntable, spinning solid gold with each revolution. In marketing and A&R posts at Arista, Capitol, Chrysalis and Elektra, he amped up the careers of acts ranging from country crooner Brad Paisley to Swedish avant-garde chanteuse Björk to game-changing rock band Metallica. He also supervised music for Hollywood films like Cruel Intentions and Miss Congeniality, produced hit songs (remember "Dance On" or "Undivided"?) and created reality talent show Opening Act for E!

Throughout, he shaped musical tastes worldwide and established a reputation as one of the savviest and most influential execs in the business.

Then, in 2001, Schnur took up the challenge of guiding music development at Electronic Arts, commissioning original compositions and slotting tracks from new and established artists into the company's games. 

"I don't think they knew the potential," he recalls. "The then-president of our studio said, 'I really don't know what the vision is, but the real estate is yours.' I asked him two questions. 'The songs in Madden football—do I have to get stuck with what the sport sounds like? Or can you envision that we can change the sound of the sport?' And he basically said, 'Go for it.' So he gave me carte blanche. And I took it over. In one regard I envisioned [gaming's global scope]. But it grew beyond what I expected." 

Now serving as worldwide executive, president music at EA (and a member of Clio Music's 2019 Use of Music Jury), Schnur remains a game changer. He strives to enhance the playing experience and expose his audience to a wide range of musical styles. 

In our Q&A below, edited for length and clarity, Schnur takes us on tour of his tuneful journey, discusses music as an intrinsic element of gaming, and looks ahead to an always-on future where the fun, comradeship and competition are perpetually turned up to 10.

Muse: What are you proudest of, professionally? 

Steve Schnur: I've been in the Star Wars business for almost five years. I'm constantly traveling, recording the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road, being true to the authentic feel and sound and tonality of the franchise, or in Nashville, recording Star Wars with some of the greatest orchestral musicians on the planet. 

It's an honor, a privilege, but also it's a great responsibility because you're taking some of John Williams' music and sometimes embellishing and going beyond. If he wrote a two-minute cue for Episode II, and you need to extend that cue—because in the world of games, remember, you have to; it's interactive entertainment—you can't sit with one two-minute linear cue. There have to be multiple possibilities. So we have one of the great composers, Gordy Haab, who has been working with me for years, who writes hundreds of minutes of additional music. Gordy, by the way, is one of maybe five or six composers in the world who are officially blessed by Lucas. 

What's the hardest challenge on Star Wars? 

I think it's the massive size of the project. It's being able to ensure the authenticity. To be able to grow the brand, musically speaking, I think it's how to ensure that Star Wars fans from day one accept new ways to approach the sound of Star Wars. And to make sure that the core fans not only accept it but fall in love with it. That means a lot of music to be written, at times a lot of overthinking. But you're taking over a massive global project that's been around for decades. You never take it for granted. You don't want one note to go wrong. 

Are you always getting feedback on the music from gaming fans?

Whether it's Star Wars, FIFA, Madden Football, The Sims, the answer is 100 percent yes, through various means. There are three or four ways I hear from fans constantly. 

Number one, telemetry right there in front of you. You see how people every minute use the music in games. … You see which songs are being played and which are not—hard data. 

Number two, of course, you get fan feedback, whether through focus groups or other ways of communicating through the communities. The communities of Battlefield, Battlefront, FIFA, are significantly strong, and people have loud voices. These games are their lives. And games, as you probably know, are mainstream entertainment. It's bigger than the movie and music industries combined. So you get that feedback. 

And in other ways, I get the feedback in casual life. This happens at least once a week. I was at a doctor's appointment last week, and the doctor walked into the room with two other doctors, and he goes, "Are you the guy who does the music for Madden football and FIFA?" And I said, "Yup." And two or three doctors walked in behind him, and all they wanted to do before they talked about why I was there was talk about all the music they've loved in FIFA. They were uber-fans. 

I've had security agents at airports around the world, when they go to stamp my passport, say to me, "What do you do for a living?" I'll say, "I run music at EA." And they say, "Do you do the music for FIFA?" And they just want to chat. They never even bother looking at my passport anymore. 

People take it very, very seriously. I can't begin to tell you. And we take that into account. When we did the music for Madden or FIFA, those are some very important playlists to be on. We go through thousands of songs. We end up with 40, sometimes, give or take. And every one ends up being important to the people who play those franchises. It's a significant responsibility.

You've been at EA close to 20 years. What has changed most in the way music and games work together? 

I think what has changed most is the acknowledgment of the importance of music in the space. When I started, nobody really understood or acknowledged the impact, or potential impact, of the songs we were placing or the original music we were having written and recorded, what that would have on the culture. We wanted to be a part of influencing culture. I would be so bold to say now that we've become culture. In other words, people literally will look back at Madden, FIFA, NHL, SSX, Sims, and quote how those songs influenced their lives. There's a band in Nashville called Judah & the Lion, who we strongly believe in. I've got them—and other bands, but in this case, them—saying they grew up on Madden football … and those bands [with songs in the game] were the reason they started to play guitar and wanted to be in a band.

I do believe a lot of the scores, as well—the theme, the scores to Medal of Honor, through Michael Giacchino, originally, Ramin Djawadi, who went on to Game of Thrones—I think the influence of that has been strong.

What hasn't changed fast enough is the way we're able to deliver them. We're still somewhat tethered to a disc or download, even though we're able to update through live services, monthly, weekly, whatever, with crowd gaming coming at us quickly. My dream has been, since before Spotify was invented, to be able to have a 24/7 ever-changing gamer-to-gamer musical experience. Hopefully we're getting there. 

We like to be bold, edgy. We don't like to be in the background. Look at the score to Battlefront 1. That got over 80 million streams on Spotify. Now I acknowledge that's not a Beyoncé number, but that's a classical album, and I guarantee you the majority of people listening to that are not 70 years old. That has changed the way the next generation thinks of classical music. They're discovering it through games, just like our generation discovered classical music through Star Wars.

We were there from the beginning with composers like Michael Giacchino and Chris Lennertz, who now does Lost in Space for Netflix. We also have composers like Hans Zimmer, who did FIFA: The Journey for us last year and is about to start another project with us. So that generation of composers is coming into our world and feeling untethered to picture. They love the freedom that comes from not having to write to something on screen. They love the idea of musically digging into their own imaginations and coming up with thousands of potential places their music can go. So I think we've changed the composing business as well. That's a bold statement, but I think it's the way music is written now. 

You came from the old-school labels and MTV. Did you have a vision of what the EA job would be?

I'll be honest with you. I took the job based initially on frustration because I was signing bands, at the time, to Capitol Records, and one radio station program director decided whether all the work we'd put in over the last two years was worthy. I couldn't believe we were putting that much time, effort, love and creativity into something and letting one gatekeeper stop it or let it go. I also had done films. I had worked on Miss Congeniality and others, which were fun but limiting. I think when I met the folks who ran EA, they had dabbled in music and had some successful PR hits with Robbie Williams and Barenaked Ladies and others. I don't think they knew the potential.

MTV was huge back in the day. Do you think gaming has had an even bigger cultural impact?

Yes. I think it's generational. Many people who were 20 in the late '90s and had a Nintendo 64 are still gamers. And their kids have become gamers. I'm sure we had no idea then that we'd have the sort of broad spectrum of places to play games, whether it be through mobile, console, whatever.

We had no idea about the concept of downloads, or eventually, streaming. Just like movie studios probably couldn't see Netflix coming. But one thing that was different was that gaming grew as it picked up new generations. Gaming is the furthest thing from being done yet. Gaming is going to affect every other media. It's already affecting television. Look at the Black Mirror episode last year [Bandersnatch, in which viewers controlled some story elements]. While it might have been considered experimental, I think it is where television has to go. Films, for sure: I don't think there is a person today under 15 or 16, our future adults, who really enjoy linear entertainment. They want to have something in their hands where they can make choices. If you're 5 or 10, you were born into a world that only knows video games. I doubt [that] in 15, 20 years you're going to enjoy a TV show with a beginning, middle and end.

You're a musician, right? What instruments do you play? 

I was trained on guitar, starting at 4, and I taught myself piano at 7. I played some brass instruments, but more importantly … when I was 7, I was studying at Carnegie Hall to orchestrate. I wanted to be an orchestrator, really, but I didn't know what that was at the time. I probably [would have said I] wanted to be a composer. I used to love sort of ripping apart songs and writing chord parts and string parts, making bland songs funky, and things like that. 

When I was about 12, I was asked to be in a band. It was all 16-year-olds, and that's when I realized the bands had groupies. I think that sort of changed my direction right there. And there was no turning back. I did start in school to study orchestration and writing, and I loved it. So I think that's where my love of orchestral music comes from. I wasn't classically trained, but I was definitely trained to orchestrate. I stopped being in bands in college, because the idea of living in a van didn't do it for me. But I liked all the perks. And the funny thing is, once I got to school and got this internship at MTV, I got to live that dream through other people. 

My 24-year-old daughter called me recently and said, "Oh, my God, Dad. Have you seen that movie on Netflix about this band Mötley Crüe?" And I said, "Have I seen it? I was there." 

What's the wildest party or rock or pop thing that ever happened to you? 

I was there with Mötley Crüe for a long time. There were a lot of naked parties I walked into. There was a lot of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. It's all absolutely true. I watched how girls got backstage quite a lot at a lot of different bands' shows. I watched [rock 'n' roll] take itself very seriously, but there was still that backstage element of rock 'n' roll. I watched the rock stars, and the drugs, and the rock 'n' roll turn into nurseries and babies backstage. 

And I watched it all change and, not go away, but certainly at times lose some of the playfulness. I think hip-hop has helped. Wiz Khalifa, Snoop and other people we know and love and work with have re-energized my belief that music is about fun and not taking things so seriously. I think there's a sexuality and a sensuality to music that's finally coming back. 

Do you think younger artists, because of the PC woke culture, are more conservative in terms of partying?

They're much more conservative and inhibited. There's nothing wrong with political correctness when it comes to respectfulness to others and, certainly, equality. We all believed that then, as well. Yes, one could argue about sexism in rock 'n' roll, and frankly, they're quite right. But I believe that there is an inhibited vibe now. If they want to get crazy, they're inhibited and shy. Then, it really was about that because that was how you got loose, that was how you lived that alternative life you wanted. And, again, I think hip-hop is the new rock 'n' roll … and I respect it because of that. 

I'm not saying we need to go back to extremes, but I think everybody's so afraid to do what they want and say what they want. Yes, respect, equality, 100 percent. Absolutely. That's key to everything, and that's the change that needs to be made. But to lose who you are, and to walk through life afraid of expressing yourself individually and creatively, that's sad.

If you had to predict in two years, five years, what music and gaming will look like, what might be the one or two biggest innovations or changes?

Cloud gaming. Streaming. No more download, no more disc. 24/7/365 experience. It changes. You're not tethered to a one-time-a-year experience. Your Madden 2022, 2024, will evolve daily. Maybe you won't even have '22, '24 anymore. Maybe it will just be: You'll play and subscribe to the World of Madden or FIFA, and it will constantly update. Music that changes all the time, enhancing your experience. Scores that are updated every day. We're going to do it.

[Imagine] a cloud-gaming-based community of friends from around the world who play Madden NFL, FIFA and other favorite EA Sports titles, and then collectively watch their favorite team's games together, living and breathing the EA Sports experience together. Imagine a world where there's no beginning, middle and end. In other words, a subscription-based model where your experience changes every minute, and you're interacting in your social gaming community around the world, where you can play your favorite team and you and your community who just played it can even watch the real game together in the same space. 

Just a big, gigantic social community of gamers, globally.

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