At Work With Steve Schnur, Who Decides the Music in Your Favorite Video Games
At Work is a weekly Rolling Stone series exploring how decision-makers in the fast-changing music business spend their hectic days — as well as what burgeoning ideas they’re keen to explore, what advice they’d give to industry newcomers, and more. Read earlier interviews here.
Steve Schnur is one of the music industry’s most prolific executives, even though he doesn’t work at a music company. Schnur — who serves as the massive video-game company Electronic Arts’ worldwide executive and president of music — oversees a unique department that produces compositions and scores for various EA games, including multiple “Star Wars” titles, in addition to curating two of the most listened-to playlists in the world: the Madden and FIFA video game soundtracks. He worked for Arista and other record labels before coming to the creative playground of EA, where he’s spent the last 19 years.
“I was in the record business for years. It took me leaving the record business to get into the music business,” he says. “The concept of creating through games came out of my experience and frustration of being an A&R guy. We would find someone we thought could change someone’s life, and one radio guy decided they wouldn’t play it. Those walls were very frustrating.”
Schnur spoke with Rolling Stone from his home in Nashville, where he’s bunkered down in the ongoing crisis, about the quirks of his role, his work with artists like Lizzo and Kendrick Lamar, and the very promising future he sees for the music industry in video games.
How do you start your day? What time are you waking up?
The beauty of having a rescue dog is I don’t need to set an alarm — she’s a consistent 6 a.m. wakeup call. She’s 6 a.m. whether in Nashville or LA. Somehow she understands time change. So I take the dog out, feed the dog, then I’m pretty serious about a healthy morning starting with meditation, warm lemon water. I make a shake every morning with barley grass, kale, bananas, blueberries and cilantro. Peloton is my morning ritual.
By the time that’s done I’m on calls very early. I’m dealing with studios every day in Stockholm, Helsinki and London. By the time I actually get to the office, or in Nashville, get to the studio, I have hours behind me. I’m not a coffee person — I have enough energy for four people alone, so coffee’s not my friend.
Walk us through what a typical day looks like.
My days are consistently unpredictable. I can be working on a score for a game, I can be speaking to multitudes of composers to figure out who that composer will set the tone for the franchise. I can be talking to Hans Zimmer or Michael Giacchino.
It can be in the studio producing scores in Nashville or London or it can be speaking with every genre of artist, like Lizzo who did a song in Simlish for us three years ago, before anybody knew who she was. Or I can be on with Billie Eilish. There’s no genre. There’s just great, next-generation musicians that we reach out to and try to ensure they know that, if we are going to be in a relationship with them, we hold that near and dear to us.
How did leaving the inner circle of the music industry change your work?
I didn’t ever have to sell it to EA. They had the faith in me. I’m fortunate to work for people to allow the creative real estate in any of these games, be it Madden, FIFA or NHL, or Star Wars, Battlefield or Mass Effect. Music’s a big part of any of these games. They gave us the real estate to build a unique cultural environment. We’re obsessed with what’s going to change people’s lives, musically speaking.
We used to say we wanted to influence culture, and I’m proud to say that we’ve now become a part of culture. I don’t know if all the adults get that yet, but gamers do, and that’s a lot of people. And musicians do. From day one, I wanted it to be: You would play your game and your parents would yell ‘Turn that damn music down.’ I wanted that from day one, and I think that’s where we are now.
“The reason I got into A&R in the first place is because I wanted to see an artist go from 50 people to 500 to 5,000 through our efforts. And we can do that now. We can put them in front of millions of people instantly.”
The soundtracks are a major part of the FIFA and Madden games. What was it like making them?
All I knew back then when I started was what I didn’t want to do — which was, sound like the [actual] NFL or soccer. We’d just be Queen and “We are the Champions” every year. What I wanted was music discovery. We didn’t want to to be restricted by what some corporation was telling us tested well.
One rule for myself and for the team is we are never allowed to listen to the radio. I don’t want us ever influenced. I want us influenced by our own gut. What we discover every day, we share. I’m proud of the fact that football and soccer sound very different today than they did 15 years ago. The leagues acknowledge the fact that most fans discover the sport through the virtual experience — through FIFA or Madden. And the sound isn’t AC/DC. It isn’t Queen or God forbid Gary Glitter. The sound is Denzel Curry, DaBaby, Anderson .Paak. That’s the sound of the next generation of sports fan, and it’s the sound of the game.
The reason I got into A&R in the first place is because I wanted to see an artist go from 50 people to 500 to 5,000 through our efforts. And we can do that now. We can put them in front of millions of people instantly. I surrounded myself with people who look at music the same way. We’re there very early. We were there early on Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, for Kings of Leon. We’re constantly talking about what’s next. Gamers look to us every year to discover new music to change their lives.
I constantly meet people where they can name a song and the year of the game from where they discovered it. The way it got there — frankly was that the musicians were gamers themselves. They knew that their fans and they themselves on the road were playing games.
How do you find new music when radio is off limits?
I love that question. I know this is cliché — my team and I have been together 18 years, we scour the earth, we have a global network, it’s constantly growing and evolving. We look at trends, what’s happening with certain genres. We follow bands religiously. They don’t know we’re following them, but we are. I’m not interested in if a band has 70 million versus seven streams initially. I want to know if this artist moves us. If this band can translate to being a global artist.
We don’t localize games. We, to this day, have music meetings where we listen like fans. We’re tough on each other. We fight in the greatest sense. It’s like getting people who love music in a room and trying to get everybody else to be convinced they’re the greatest band of the future. The hardest part is narrowing it down. We’ll have to narrow it down to the 50 that get into FIFA.
You’d brought up a lot of artists you’ve featured in games. Do you have a white whale? An artist or song you’ve been chasing for years you haven’t gotten into a game?
The ones that I would’ve thought would be the most difficult — like Radiohead and Jack White — actually come around to us. One of our most viewed trailers on YouTube was for Battlefield 1 with Seven Nation Army. Jack White is notorious for not wanting to license, and it ended up being a massive success, and thank god because he’s literally my neighbor in Nashville. We’ve worked with Jay-Z and so many massive global artists that don’t hold back when it comes to understanding the value, relationship, and care we take to being in one of our games. I can’t think of many who’ve said no, because I think our reputation proceeds us that we really give a shit.
Years ago, we were working on the Lord of the Rings games, and I wanted Jimmy Page for it. I wanted to license a ton of Zeppelin Songs. It was one of my crazy 10 p.m. ideas. As opposed to Billie Eilish, Lizzo or Anderson .Paak, I didn’t have Jimmy Page’s number in my pocket. I reached out. The only thing that couldn’t get us there was the fact at the time, their team, their lawyers, just didn’t get the concept at the time that any score they wrote wouldn’t even be heard the same way twice because of the interactive component. They didn’t understand I couldn’t give them all the possibilities of what the score would sound like since there were infinite possibilities. Someday, I’ll probably run into Jimmy Page and tell him that was one of my biggest regrets — because I believe if I sat with him and Robert Plant, they would’ve immediately said “hell yes.”
We’re seeing such a marriage of music and video games now. How do you see that continuing in the coming years?
I’ve been in this business a long time, before there was Guitar Hero or Rock Band. I believe the lines will continue to blur. As we go toward cloud gaming, getting out of the download era, hopefully labels and publishers will see the light the way the artists have, and that we can untether the relationship between a packaged good and move into a 24/7 musical experience. I believe that we are going to blur the lines between the group you play Madden with and the group you share music with. Social depth of discovery and play is going to only grow. Technology — this is what got me in my days of the record business: It’s always been the evolution of the music business. Since I’m in a technology business, I see it every day. The only thing limiting us are people who don’t understand and don’t like change, but we have to gravitate to where music or gaming is going.
What are some of your hobbies when you’re off the clock?
I don’t do things like play golf. I love to cook. I love history and reading. I’m a songwriter, I love songwriting. Where that all comes from is collaboration. Whether it’s working on a game and working with musicians or working with songwriters to create a song, it’s all about a collaborative process. That’s who I am.