What’s the most coveted guest turn in the music business? An invite to perform two songs on Saturday Night Live? Not bad. A gig at The O.C.‘s faux-grungy rock club, the Bait Shop? We’re listening. A visit to TRL, followed by a chat with a sycophantic VJ? It’ll do.
Go poll a fistful of rappers, rockers, and record execs and you’ll likely get this answer: The real music-biz touchdown comes with a little thing called Madden NFL Football. Scoring a spot on the soundtrack for the Electronic Arts game is, says Bruce Flohr, head of A&R for Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, ”just as important as getting the record played on KROQ or Z100 or any big radio station. When I landed in Los Angeles from mixing the latest Dave Matthews Band album, my first stop was [a pitch meeting] at EA Games.”
On the receiving end of these pitches is Steve Schnur, a bright-eyed former A&R guy (Capitol, Arista, and others) with a head of spiky, thinning hair. As the worldwide executive for music and audio for videogame giant EA, it is Schnur’s job to place music in every single one of EA’s 40-some-odd releases every year. ”I left the record industry,” Schnur says, ”to get into the music business.” Which means everything from commissioning a score from journeyman film composer Trevor Jones to slogging through literally thousands of songs for every game to find just the right pop tune to match the pixelated pyrotechnics of race-‘n’-crash game Burnout or the careful joystick flipping of Tiger Woods PGA Tour.
In Schnur’s three years at EA, he’s become a bona fide music mogul, not only transforming games into a more powerful pop-culture experience but offering music-biz marketers an attractive option beyond the usual orbit of radio, retail, and press. All of which translates, according to Schnur, into ”the coolest job in the world.”
The 800-pound gorilla of the industry, EA is the world’s largest videogame company, pulling in $3 billion in revenue last year. And in its stable of cash-generating franchises — Need for Speed, NBA Live, The Sims, and many others?the 16-year-old Madden NFL series is the company’s signature title, having sold more than 40 million copies since its debut in 1989 (it’s still a fixture on annual best-seller lists).
Thanks to Schnur, those black $50 discs now offer baby bands and veteran acts alike an effective way to generate buzz (right down to the jukebox-style features on games that allow players to see the song titles and band names). ”People weren’t paying much attention to game music when I started,” Schnur says. ”The more I researched it, the more I realized how simple it would be to bring music to where kids are.” Prime recent example: Green Day’s ”American Idiot” debuted on Madden NFL 2005 last summer, weeks before the single hit radio or MTV; the album of the same name went on to be one of the most successful records of 2004, winning the Grammy for Best Rock Album.
Instead of force-feeding a diet of tired jock-rock to the gaming audience, Schnur approaches his job like a cool-hunting adolescent, stringing together cuts by acts as diverse as Radiohead, Snoop Dogg, the Dandy Warhols, and Good Charlotte. And because he’s divorced from the market-plan mentalities of radio airplay and retail jockeying, he’s free to indulge his inner tastemaker: the early adopter, the first kid on the block who knows about that band you’ve gotta hear. ”I just need one guy to remember that we had the song first,” he says. ”Bragging rights are the important thing. My whole motto here is that even though we’re not 14, we have to think and act like we’re 14.”