Leaks can deliver quite a blow to video game publishers ahead of the release of any big title. But Steve Schnur isn’t one to get too downcast about it. “I’ve been working on the FIFA franchise, musically-speaking, since FIFA 02,” Electronic Arts’ worldwide executive and president of music tells NME on a Zoom call from LA about the recent FIFA 23 leak. “What my hope and vision [was back] then, I never even imagined that, as disruptive as it can be, a part of the leak was the list of music.”
Noting “the fanaticism” surrounding the annual reveal of the FIFA soundtrack that he and his small team at EA are responsible for delivering, Schnur says he’s “so proud that people care this much: that it’s so much a part of people’s culture, that it drives culture, that it is culture, [and] that it’s the musical discovery platform that’s been so important to people for 20 years”.
Schnur’s passion is convincing because, well, it’s his baby. Since joining EA in 2001, the New Jersey-born executive has spearheaded the prioritisation of licensed and original music across a number of EA’s best-known franchises (including Madden, Need For Speed and The Sims) to the point where, as Schnur says about FIFA, “people are going nuts to get their hands on a list of musicians and songs”.
The imminent arrival of FIFA 23 – the last in the FIFA series after EA ended its partnership with the titular football governing body earlier this year to go it alone with EA Sports FC – has Schnur excited to showcase the “staggering surprises and incredible musical moments” he and his team have been assembling over the past year, as well as bringing the curtain down on FIFA by “really memorialising and celebrating what the last 20 years have brought to us”.
“Our goal every year is to be a constant place of discovery for next-generation music fans, help define the tone of the sport and, as we move to FIFA to EA FC, also momentarily look back on what we created collectively with the players and the fans to have such a beautifully recognisable format,” he says, adding that the FIFA 23 soundtrack will feature over 100 songs.
Schnur believes that in the 20 years he’s worked on FIFA, “for the most part we’ve got it right” music-wise, ensuring that “a lot of people depend on us musically” with each soundtrack release. There’s therefore a definite pressure on his team to curate a cutting-edge and forward-facing compilation on an annual basis, but their tried-and-trusted approach is clearly working. Last year’s FIFA 22, for instance, featured music from the established likes of Little Simz, The Chemical Brothers and Jungle, as well as recent NME Radar favourites Baby Queen, TSHA and Yard Act.
One component of Schnur’s methodology is a strict no-radio rule. “I don’t want anybody on my team to be influenced by other people’s tastes or ideas,” he tells NME. “I want us as a team to follow our gut and our knowledge of what’s going on in the world: don’t jump on trends that are ending, jump on trends that are beginning. [Our process] is the furthest thing from being formulaic. We literally scour every corner of the Earth that we can, musically-speaking, to find the next greatest thing. Sometimes they come to us, sometimes we seek them out – we say no a lot more than we say yes. I don’t expect every person who plays FIFA to love every single song, but I love when they argue about the greatest songs in the game: I think those arguments are incredibly healthy to have.”
Such debates about the “greatest FIFA song” will rage on, with Blur’s ‘Song 2’ (“the quintessential football song,” says Schnur), Fatboy Slim’s ‘Rockafeller Skank’ and Kings Of Leon’s ‘Red Morning Light’ among the all-time favourites. For Schnur, Kasabian have provided the best FIFA tune thus far in ‘Club Foot’. “The guys in that band are some of the most football-obsessed people I know on planet Earth,” he says of the Serge Pizzorno-led band. “Just knowing how much FIFA meant to them personally… to them, it’s been: ‘How many times can we get [our music] into FIFA?’ It’s a measure of success to them, I just love it.”
As well as FIFA, Schnur – who joined EA over two decades ago after working at such record labels as Arista, Chrysalis and Capitol Records – has worked extensively on developing original music for the likes of EA’s Star Wars, Mass Effect and Battlefield titles, working with the likes of Hans Zimmer, Junkie XL and Joker composer Hildur Guðnadóttir in the process. Under his guidance, EA has become one of the leading games companies to embrace and advance the use of both licensed and original music in their titles over the past two decades.
“When we started, nobody gave a second thought to the collision of music and games as one,” Schnur reflects now. “We had a really great runway ahead of us where the [only] people who were paying attention to us were gamers. Look what’s happened in the last couple of years: people are suddenly paying attention to synchronistic games like Fortnite, or Roblox having ‘Spotify Island’. Every time another games company does something musically and it creates headlines now, I’m thrilled because we’ve been doing this all along and we’ll continue to do it.”
For Schnur, the relationship between music and games “has always been there”. “Go find me a FIFA fan or an NHL fan, or, in terms of orchestral moments, go find me a Battlefield fan or a Call Of Duty fan that doesn’t talk about the music – there won’t be many of them! Everybody knows the theme to The Sims: I’m actually talking right now to a pretty huge artist who wants to take the theme from The Sims – 11 notes that 300million people around the world know! – and sample it into a new pop song. People are talking about music coming into gaming, but how about gaming going the other way when artists start sampling orchestral themes? That says a lot as well.”
Schnur certainly agrees with the view that every modern-day games developer needs to have music as “a top priority”. “Music is so critically important to the emotional experience that you have when you play a game, just like it is when you watch a movie,” he continues. “Can you imagine watching Joker without Guðnadóttir’s incredible score? If it had been any other score, you might not have felt the fear or the psychopathic experience that you have. Well, imagine the same with games. We don’t look at it haphazardly.”
While giving due respect to the pioneering advancements made through the pivotal use of music in Call Of Duty, Red Dead Redemption and Grand Theft Auto, Schnur “humbly” believes that EA was the one who initially got the ball rolling.
“I don’t believe we have the formula, I believe we have to continuously reinvent ourselves and bring new content and new ideas to our players,” he adds. “I get involved with what the tone of the project will be years in advance. I worked on Battlefield 2042 four years before it came out; I work on other filmic titles three of four years in advance, setting the tones of the characters, looking at which composers can possibly deliver the best emotional and interactive experience.”
Schnur’s latest EA contribution, FIFA 23, will land on September 30, but there will be little time to celebrate. “The day it comes out, I start working on EA FC,” he reveals. “There’s no break – actually, the break is now, because we’re locked and loaded. [But] then, all of a sudden, we’ll go, ‘OK! How are we gonna do something [that’s] never been done before with EA FC?’”
Knowing that the gaming world is watching your every move could be a daunting prospect, but Schnur sees it differently. “I’m so proud when I see people out there, online or in-person, talking about FIFA songs. A friend of mine who lives in London says that all of his friends continually argue over the best football songs in the pub, and they’d be by bands from 2003, 2006 and so on. [FIFA] has become the ownership of what football means to them, musically-speaking. We used to say that we’re following culture. [Now] we’re creating culture and, dare I say, we are culture.”