With immensely popular games like Madden, FIFA, NHL, The Sims, Need For Speed, Battlefield, Apex Legends, and dozens of others, Electronic Arts (EA) has cemented itself as one of the leading gaming companies in the world. As it constantly tries to up the ante and keep its thumb on the pulse of culture, EA and its team are always looking for ways to bring new innovations and experiences to their millions of worldwide players.
As the No. 1 PC game played by female gamers and one of the best selling video games of all time, The Sims has been a major part of pop culture over the past 21 years. In the games’ newest creative endeavor, The Sims 4 will be offering an exclusive limited-time only, in-game musical performance. In a fantasy world where there’s always something to explore, curating in-game concerts through The Sims connects real-world fandoms to a place where gamers can express themselves in a way that is most authentic and meaningful to them. The fully immersive, first of its kind event will be headlined by Grammy nominated pop artist Bebe Rexha with opening acts Glass Animals and Joy Oladokun. The event will be available from June 29 – July 7.
EA’s President of Music Steve Schnur, a Nashvillian, spoke to MusicRow to discuss this new wave of live in-game music programming, the future of Sims Sessions, and EA’s ability to influence and introduce artists to new listeners.
MusicRow: What role do you specifically play in the EA world as President of Music? What does that entail for you?
Schnur: I’m responsible for every note that goes in every one of our games. That could be the music that gets curated into FIFA, Madden, NHL, The Sims, Need For Speed, and everything else, but it’s also all the music that I produce orchestrally for games like Battlefield, Star Wars, and Mass Effect. It also includes all of the marketing, so every note in every trailer, whether it’s orchestral or a licensed music selection, music marketing activities like Sim Sessions, appearances at our events, running our music publishing company, running our music production company, and running our record soundtrack label. All things to do with music, and everything to do with the cultural impact.
We made a commitment 20 years ago to launch brands that we thought could move the needle on people’s lives. Now we see it taken even further, for instance, when I consult the NFL (National Football League) or the MLS (Major League Soccer). The sports now are starting to sound more like us. There’s no Queen, Bon Jovi, or ACDC. To make it local, Nashville SC’s theme song was written and performed by Judah & the Lion. I’m the guy that brought that in and had them write it. I’m the guy that works with the Titans in town to decide the tone of what next generation football sounds like.
Leagues are working with us now because they recognize that the future sound of their sport cannot lie in the hands of 50 and 60 year olds. We have to pay attention to the next generation of 10-25 year-olds who are learning these sports through a virtual experience. What we had when we were kids and how we discovered the tone of our sports was through what played in the stadium or on TV, but that game is over. These soundtracks live beyond the game themselves.
All of that to say, my responsibility isn’t simply curation of music in the game, but it’s setting a tone that will go well beyond the game.
What was it like to work with Judah & the Lion on the Nashville SC theme song?
I sat with the team and the band and we had lengthy discussions on what we were trying to say and how we were trying to be truly “Nashville.” Not the typical Nashville, but we were trying to represent the broader Nashville and the next generation of Nashville since soccer is such a next generation sport in this country. Just go to any MLS game and you’ll see the demographic difference. So the question was how do we appeal to that generation?
I get why Tim McGraw’s song comes on every time the Predators score a goal. The MLS team, though, was about the next generation. They wanted to find out what Nashville means to the world. Soccer is a global sport, it’s not a local or even national sport. So what does Nashville mean to somebody in Germany or London or Los Angeles?
It could mean Margo Price or Judah & the Lion. It could mean Blake Shelton or The Black Keys. It could mean so many different things, so we needed to represent the team in that way. It was a clear distinction that we had to make at the very beginning. Our soccer team had to represent everyone because it’s an inclusive sport, and the music had to represent it that way.
As far as the Sims announcement, what does this new feature mean for both the players and for artists who are going to be featured?
The Sims is an asynchronous game, not just because it’s not built that way, but also because it reflects the way younger people use media–when, how, if, and when they want. It’s all about creative expression: who you are, who you want to be, and who you envision yourself to be with no judgment.
Music has always been a critical part of The Sims. I was a little nervous 15+ years ago to have artists re-record their songs in Simlish, the language of The Sims, because I thought it might be offensive to ask an artist to re-sing a song in a foreign language that many people considered to be gibberish. However, to the hundreds of millions of Sims fans around the world, it has meaning and it has its own self-expression. Once I did it a few times, I became much bolder and we started creating packs. We’ve done ’80s packs, heavy metal packs, country packs with artists like Luke Bryan, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, and even Lady A doing “Need You Now” in Simlish before they put it out in English. Over the years, we have nearly 500 artists that have recorded in Simlish. So you go to an area in the game and listen to these new artists that you don’t know yet, and later on you realize, “Oh my god! That person became a superstar and they sang in Simlish!”
The question was, “How do we create a self-expressive, true Sims type of festival while also being completely unique and not typical as to things you’ve seen in the last couple of years?” We made it very intimate and I think intimacy is key. You don’t show up with 40 or 50 million of your friends at once, but you show up in a small group of friends to an event that you couldn’t ever see in the real world. In the case of the first Sim Sessions, with Bebe Rexha, Glass Animals, and Joy Oladokun, you go to your local park, gazebo, or other intimate settings, and you see these artists perform for you in Simlish. It’s not a typical broadcast of something that maybe you see during COVID, but next year you’ll see it at the Ascend Amphitheater. It retains the intimate, self-expressive world of the hundreds of millions of people around the world who play The Sims.
It’s limited in the sense that it will only be available for a certain amount of time, but you go when you want to go whether it’s 11 p.m. on Friday or 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. I’m hoping that this really sets off the trend for Sims fans around the world to experience something that they will never experience anywhere else. Over 300 million people have bought The Sims, so this is not a small audience or a small feat. It’s an experience that we hope to bring somewhat regularly to Sims fans and expand upon these concepts so that people can continuously feel that they’re a part of The Sims community.
When a music supervisor is working on a film, they often read a scene and try to find a song to compliment it. How does that happen in the game world? What guides your decision on what songs to place where?
I do music supervision for films as well and it’s very different. Since there’s no scene, so we’ve come up with our own format when we pick songs. I stand by what I promised to do 20 years ago when I joined EA, which is that if we have a game called Madden 22 or FIFA 22, every piece of music in that game is going to point forward. It’s going to be something that launches or continues to launch through the season ahead of you.
Because of that, most of the music we curate in our games is music that is being recorded or has just been recorded. I’m very proud when we go to get our license from our label and publishing partners that so much of the music that we’re selecting isn’t even in their systems yet because it hasn’t even been submitted. My team and I have a pretty good idea as to what is or isn’t going to culturally move the needle in a year or two and what artists are going in the studio so that we can go in and be a part of that. We’re in the studio constantly working with artists to make sure that their music is a part of our franchises.
Essentially, you’re not just predicting culture, you’re creating culture. The amount of plays that a song gets in one game of FIFA or Madden is equivalent to almost a billion hours, if not more. Everybody isn’t going to like every single song, but if we can move the needle on someone’s musical taste and get them to fall in love with a new artist or song then I’m pretty happy about that. It’s really a combination of A&R, curation, gut, know-how, and deep relationships in the music community, whether it’s with labels, publishers, artists, or songwriters worldwide.
If I can give so many impressions of a song to that many people, we can affect research at radio stations and the familiarity of an artist. I remember we put Lee Brice in Madden about four years ago, and he told me that he has fans that would never normally be fans coming to him saying, “Who are you? You’re amazing,” but they don’t listen to country. The same thing happened with Lady A in The Sims. Dave Haywood would tell me they got requests for “Need You Now” in Simlish from people who don’t listen to country radio.
That doesn’t just apply to country, though. I can’t say we don’t lay heavily into certain genres in certain franchises. However, we definitely go out of our comfort zone as often as possible. I don’t look at Brandy Clark or Lee Brice as being country. Rather, I just look at them as being great artists, and if they fit musically in an NHL game then wonderful!
Some of the questions I had before this conversation had to do with what country songs bring to games or if there were any games that require more country music, but clearly there isn’t a one size fits all or a cookie cutter that you’re trying to fill. Is that right?
It is. I’m a very proud Nashvillian, and I moved here in 1994 before this town was cool. My heart is in this town and I am a country music fanatic, but I’m not in the country, hip hop, or rock business, I’m in the music business.
I believe wholeheartedly that country belongs in games. That doesn’t mean it naturally fits into everything we do, but when I can, I go out of my way to make it happen. We have had a lot of representation of country music in our games over the years from Blake Shelton, Lady A, Martina McBride, Brandy Clark, Ruthie Collins, and Luke Bryan among others. We also have a lot of non-country country-based Nashville artists represented, like Judah & the Lion, Kings of Leon, and The Black Keys.
Our heart is deeply in Nashville, and our heart is exclusively in Nashville when it comes to all the orchestral sessions for Star Wars, Madden or FIFA and our scores for Mass Effect. I, with great humility, take so much pride that this town has become one of the two most important towns in the world when it comes to film, television, game, and score recording along with London.
When it comes to Nashville music, I’m in 100% of the time. I’m filled with gratitude to be a core part of the music business in this town.
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