How Nashville became a Mecca for gaming music

Since joining gaming giant EA in 2001 Steve Schnur has been at the epicentre of music and gaming. Here’s why he’s made it his mission to tell the world why Tennessee has won his heart.

My Nashville story starts as all Nashville stories don’t – in Abbey Road Studios, London, on a rainy summer’s day. I’m there to witness a recording session for the new Star Wars game, Jedi: Fallen Order. I slip quietly, almost reverently, into the control room of Studio 2 – the space where The Beatles recorded Sgt Pepper – and stand behind a control desk overlooking half an orchestra, who are crammed into a surprisingly small space below me.

Steve Schnur, who’s recently arrived from his home in Nashville, is currently down in the canteen attempting to stave off his jet lag with some carbohydrates, all-vegan carbs though – he does spend half his time in LA, after all. Steve has the biggest job in the music industry…without actually working in the music industry. He is the worldwide executive and president of music for Electronic Arts (you’ll know it as EA) the biggest video game company in the world.

It still surprises people over a certain age when you tell them that the gaming industry is bigger than the music and film industries combined. (In January 2019, The Entertainment Retailers Association announced that the gaming market’s value has risen to £3.864 billion, more than double what it was worth in 2007.)

A few months later, I caught up with Steve again at the tail-end of a Nashville summer, when we sit down in a small room at the Ocean Way Recording Studio. We’ve spent some time together in Nashville already – yesterday he took me to a Tennessee Titans NFL game, where he casually mentioned, just before we got there, that we had pitch-side access and an executive box. When we arrived, we were welcomed with open arms by the high-ups, delighted we could be there. I mention this, not to show off (well, maybe a little bit) but to demonstrate how important gaming has become to sport, to music, to the entertainment industry, and to show just where Steve sits in all of this.

  • I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’” I was the guy in the music meetings screaming,​‘Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’”

He moved to EA in 2001, just as file-sharing was sending the music industry into a tail-spin, When I went up to Vancouver [EA’s oldest studio] for a meeting, I remember walking in – just the lobby – and it felt in 2001 the exact opposite of what a record company felt like in 2001. It felt like a record company in the 80s and 90s – it was on fire – it was young, there was energy and excitement, and there was play. People were being creative, and they had room to relax… record companies were running on fear at the time.”

Interested in composition and arrangement as a child, his head was turned by rock and roll. After playing in a few bands, and then studying music at NYU, he got a job as an intern at a new cable channel called MTV. Nobody wanted to work for MTV then because nobody knew what it was – it was the very beginning. I was the guy in the music meetings screaming, Why aren’t you playing bands like The Cure and Mötley Crüe – bands that disturb adults?’ MTV was the parallel to what video games are now. I’ve always said from day one – even in games – I want parents to yell up to their kid’s bedroom, Turn that music down!’”

He then moved to Elektra Records where he relished going against the grain, and signing acts which were hard to place on TV and radio at the time, yet acts that would turn out to have great longevity, While Phil Collins and the like were dominating the airwaves, we signed bands like Metallica, The Cure, Natalie Merchant, Bjork, The Pixies…it was very difficult to get those played, and I loved it.” 

Steve was then offered the opportunity to build his own label from the ground up, in Nashville. When I first moved here from NY in 1994, well before Nashville was considered cool, everyone told me I was absolutely out of my mind – that I was going to a place that was in the past. They thought it had an exclusive country music community, and that was pretty much the limitation. What I learned quickly is that they were absolutely all wrong.” 

After spending a very short time with Steve, you learn that he is a man with a sixth sense for what is coming next, even if he doesn’t realise that at the time. From helping to position MTV as the dangerous mate 80s parents didn’t want their kids hanging around with, to foreseeing the resurgence of the alternative scene which would come to dominate the 90s, and then, almost by accident, getting in on the ground floor of the resurgence of Nashville. But there was one more trick up his sleeve.

  • Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.” Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.”

Reluctantly moving away from Nashville – a city that’s rooted in musical culture, and for some reason which is quite fantastic, resonates everywhere in the world” – he briefly returned to LA to head up Artist and Repertoire (A&R) for Capitol Records, You grow up listening to all those amazing Capitol Records LPs and you have to take the job”. It was there that a new career as a music supervisor beckoned, a role which creates the atmosphere of a movie or TV show through the sourcing and selection of pre-existing music, and the scouting and commissioning of original music and composers.

It was also around this time that game consoles were beginning to tighten their grip on the mass media market. The original Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64 were slowly changing the perception of gaming from a child’s toy to an entertainment activity for adults, and the music industry was starting, very tentatively, to take notice. Curiously, this part of the tale is best told using Blur.

Blur had been attempting to break America since their sophomore album Modern Life is Rubbish in 1993, but nothing was doing it for them, despite exhaustive touring and multiple appearances on college radio and at in-stores. Then someone thought it might be an idea to include their new single, Song 2, on the upcoming FIFA 98 soundtrack. Playing again and again in multiple front rooms and bedrooms all over the world, it soared. Even now, when a goal is scored in a high-profile football match, you can still hear Woo-hoo”’ ringing out across the stadium. Song 2 was one of the two or three experiments that ended up solidifying the opportunity for me to get offered the job at EA. When I got this opportunity I had no idea in hell that, through all my jobs, I had been preparing myself for this one.”

Steve knew what he needed to do as soon as he set foot in the EA headquarters, I wanted to take the sports game and to use it as a showcase for the best talent we could find – MTV in the 80s became a destination, and I thought we could reproduce that – let’s bring great music to where young people are now.” He continues, I was also really baffled that although the game industry was, even then, bigger than the film industry, it sounded like the toy industry. Music is a critical ingredient for emotional participation in the piece that you’re interacting with.”

He went around to every CEO and president of every major label in LA, NY and London, and tried to convince them. Many didn’t get it, but quite a few did. I had a meeting in London at BMG in 2002, and they played me a band they had just signed – coincidentally from Nashville – this was Kings of Leon. It was the first license that band ever had, they went on FIFA, and they blew up. Then we found a band from Leicester called Kasabian, and one after another after another…and we started doing the same thing with American bands for Madden. It’s now gone full circle to where we consult the NFL and Major League Soccer to create the tone of the actual sport. Sports are finally realising that with next generation fans, all their learning is through the video game, and therefore they want to make sure that music could be the ushering moment into the live sport.”

The game industry, the independent film industry and the streaming industry were still in LA for the most part, but Steve was restless. A few of us decided we couldn’t record there anymore. So, I decided to come back to Nashville. I already thought this was the greatest music city in the world, but I was at first a little unsure about the orchestral aspect. Then Trevor Morris, who had previously scored The Tudors and The Vikings came here with me to record a trailer piece for Dragon Age. Within 30 seconds of the orchestra starting to play, we looked at each other and our mouths dropped.”

  • It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.” It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is.”

I know what Steve is going to say next, because it’s what he has been saying so passionately since the first time I met him – that it’s a city where music seeps through the cracks in the walls, and where collaboration is king. It doesn’t have the cutthroat attitude of LA, New York, or even London. It is the greatest music city in the world, because music is what this city is. When I’m recording here – not only is the musicianship best in class – on a par with London – what’s unique was that the 80 musicians on the floor were playing like a group as opposed to individuals. So, we came back, and we came back, and then again, and next thing you know a lot of the gaming companies started coming here – they saw the advantages and the talent pool… next thing you know, Call of Duty and Mafia Wars came here, and then Fortnite, and so on.” 

So how then – apart from being interviewed for a brilliant British publication, does Steve intend to get the word out about his favourite place on earth? If you can just get the tour bus that stops and shows one’s parents the RCA studios where Elvis, Johnny Cash, and the Everly Brothers recorded, and make it go one block further to Ocean Ways Studios where the soundtrack to Fortnite, FIFA, and Call of Duty is recorded, every kid in the world would say to their parents Oh my God, I have to go here again and again and again’.”

Nashville is a boom town – 100 people move here every day and no one’s leaving. And that’s due to individuals such as Steve – the centre of entertainment seems to be shifting to this Tennessee city, The signal went out decades ago, but it was highlighted through country music, in the last decade it went out on a global scale. I think that Nashville has suddenly become something that’s very sexy, enticing and unique to the rest of the world.”

Steve appears to have achieved the dream objectives of most people that work in the creative fields – to change the narrative and to make his work come to him. The way we won, is that we become a culture driver – just like MTV did. The Battlefield One soundtrack has been streamed over 90 million times. It’s a classical soundtrack – and no one over 50 is listening to that – chances are they’re 15 or 20, that just doesn’t happen in the movies.

We came to Nashville because I knew what this place had to offer. I knew it just needed somebody like me to open up a little bit of the door. And now if you mention Nashville to any LA based composer, they get so excited. We got there. It’s a victory for me – I can say I did that.”

I leave the studio and head straight for the airport – the influx of people has, to put it mildly, surprised” this city, so I have plenty of time to talk to my Lyft driver about what I’m doing here. Then he mentions that he’s in a band, and starts to queue up his iPhone. My heart would normally sink, but I remember something Steve mentioned, Taxi drivers will always play me a song they’ve just written. The difference here – and this doesn’t happen in many places in the world – is that’s it’s generally good.” This one isn’t, but that’s not the point – I approached it with an open mind and a sense of excitement. That’s what Steve seems to have done throughout his career, and why the city he now calls home is flourishing.

Star Wars, Jedi: Fallen Order is out now.


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