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EA exec on 'Madden' soundtrack: 'We didn't want Madden NFL to sound like your parent's sport' 

Andrew W.K., seen performing at a concert in 2012, helped set a new tone for the "Madden" video game series' soundtracks. (Robb Cohen/Associated Press)
Andrew W.K., seen performing at a concert in 2012, helped set a new tone for the "Madden" video game series' soundtracks. (Robb Cohen/Associated Press)

When it's time to party, we will party hard.

It is only fitting that some of the first words heard when a player booted up Madden NFL 2003 expressed celebration.

Football is experienced by many as a weekly celebration of sport, competition and passion. Extending that feeling to the virtual gridiron made sense.

And what's a party without music?

That line begins Andrew W.K.'s hit Party Hard, No. 89 on VH1's list of the greatest hard-rock songs of all time. It peaked at No. 19 on the UK singles chart. It never charted in the United States -- but to a certain segment of the population, it did come to be synonymous with Madden NFL 2003, the first installment of EA Sports' annual series to boast a soundtrack on the musical cutting edge.

As surely as any avid Madden gamer from that year can recall the player on the cover (Marshall Faulk) and gameplay elements, they can also name Party Hard as the opening track of the top sports title of 2002. Madden NFL 2003 kicked off an era of incredible success known informally as "Madden Mania." It introduced a generation of gamers to the sport (and to the game's namesake, Pro Football Hall of Fame coach John Madden).

It also showed the potential of EA Sports to become something beyond purveyors of sports simulations: musical tastemakers.

"We didn't want Madden NFL to sound like your parent's sport," Steve Schnur, worldwide executive and president of music for EA, said in an August phone interview. "My odd objective was to have your parents yell to you in your bedroom on the second floor: Turn the game down! I didn't want them to get it. I wanted only you, the player in 2003, 2005, 2009, to get the music, the sound of the sport. I wanted the NFL in the years ahead to sound more like Madden than to sound like the '80s and the '90s."

Twenty-one years after the release of Madden NFL 2003, Schnur explained how and why he helped try to push the music of the series to new frontiers.

One notable moment in Madden's musical history predated Schnur's 2001 arrival at the company: For the theme song to Madden NFL 2000, the company tabbed up-and-coming radio DJ-turned-rapper Christopher "Ludacris" Bridges.

"Maaaaaaaaan, get out my way and watch out as I come through," Ludacris growls at the start of the song. "Bustin' in your line, crackin' helmets in two."

For Schnur, though, selecting music for the game was about more than having someone perform kitschy verses penned for a football title. It was about defining the sound of the sport for the future.

"I think it illustrated the beginning of the musical, cultural impact of Madden in the next two decades ahead," Schnur told me in a phone interview in mid-August. "... If we could bring fresh, discoverable, amazing next-gen music to where people actually were, versus force them to go where they were not anymore, i.e., radio, we were not only able to break a lot of bands, but more importantly, change the sound of the sport and have players look forward every year to the music that would impact their life.

"The one thing that shook me to the core was that we were naming our Madden NFL titles with years attached to them. And we needed to sound like the year ahead. The days of Bon Jovi, Queen's We Are The Champions and AC/DC being played in all of the stadiums that I grew up in in New York, that couldn't be the sound and the energy and the feel of the next generation of NFL fans. The next generation, who were learning football through a virtual experience versus throwing the ball outside, had to have their own soundtrack. And while it may seem bold, it was the only way to move forward."

Madden NFL 2003 featured an eclectic collection of songs that largely went on to become hits across a number of genres, showcasing artists like OK Go, Nappy Roots, Audiovent, Seether and Hed PE, among others. In the cycle of that one release, Schnur and EA were already making strides in introducing gamers to genres they might not otherwise have sampled.

Take it from this writer, who learned of Good Charlotte's The Anthem by playing Madden NFL 2003 eight months before the song peaked at No. 43 on the Billboard Hot 100. By the time I'd heard the song being played on the car radio, I knew every word, much to the surprise of my older sister. How was her adolescent brother suddenly so hip to the latest hits?

The answer was simple: I'd heard this on Madden!

"The one thing that shook me to the core was that we were naming our Madden NFL titles with years attached to them. And we needed to sound like the year ahead." -- Steve Schnur

Madden NFL 2004 continued the trend, featuring artists like Blink 182, whose song Feeling This is listed in the game as Action.

"(It was) so early ... that the name of the song in the game is different from the name of the same song on their album," Schnur said. "They hadn't even named the song yet."

Madden NFL 2004 was another smash hit in the gaming world, introducing players to the possibilities of owner mode (complete with a custom stadium builder) and the mind-bending talents of virtual Michael Vick, the game's cover athlete, who remains a legendary figure in Madden lore.

With my anticipation for Madden reaching new heights, I pre-ordered my copy of Madden NFL 2004 from Toys R Us. When I picked up the game, I also acquired a custom, Madden-branded PlayStation 2 controller and a Prima Games guide that taught me how to beat the blitz (hint: run slants). I immediately left for a vacation with my family -- and spent most of the time in the hotel room, attempting to lead Kelly Holcomb and the Browns to the Super Bowl while the sounds of Jet, Killer Mike and Blink 182 filled my ears.

"I'm a big believer that the discovery of music is critical to one's personal identity," Schnur said. "So we wanted bands and songs that would last with you forever, even as times changed and sounds differed, those sounds would be reminiscent. They would be nostalgic to those moments in time that meant to you."

As in-game musical discovery opened new avenues for artists and bands to reach new audiences, the demand to be featured in an EA Sports game also increased. Madden led the way, but the company's FIFA (now known as EA Sports FC) and NHL titles became desirable homes for artists, too.

Before long, Schnur and EA didn't need to convince bands to submit their tracks. The artists started coming to them.

"I knew we had 'made it' when Green Day called me not too many years later and said, 'Can you come to Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood? We want to play you some songs,' " Schnur recalled. "They played us, on guitar, American Idiot. And said, 'When do we need to finish this by to get it into Madden?' "

American Idiot debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 on Aug. 21, 2004 -- 12 days after the release of Madden NFL 2005, on which it was featured. The song peaked at No. 61 on Oct. 30, squarely in the heart of football season.

"When bands like Green Day came around -- and Outkast, if you think about it, they were already established at the time -- when artists of that stature came around and wanted to debut songs in Madden, that was meaningful," Schnur said. "We weren't competing with radio. ... We were just making sure that our selections would be impactful enough to last a lifetime."

After nearly a decade of pushing music forward, Madden took an abrupt turn toward the past in 2010 with Madden NFL 11, a game defined by the sounds of a typical NFL stadium -- for better and worse.

Gone were the newest and most popular artists of the day. In their place appeared the classics: Guns N' Roses, Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne (who had two tracks), Bush and AC/DC, among others.

The goal was simple: Make Madden sound exactly like a real-life NFL Sunday. Depending on the stadium, Crazy Train, Welcome to the Jungle or Machinehead played before kickoffs. Todd Rundgren's Bang the Drum All Day blared inside Lambeau Field following Packers touchdowns.

At the time, Schnur adopted the company line, touting the change in approach as one that would "bring that excitement home." But now, he remembers the period as "rough years" in which "we lost it."

"I think FIFA excelled because of Madden's loss," Schnur said. "Madden, for years, was on Billboard Magazine's top 50 placements you must have as a band. And it fell off, and FIFA took over."

In Schnur's retelling, some at the company were focused on recreating the experience of watching an NFL broadcast. But broadcasts are " programming to the 50-year-olds and 60-year-olds that primarily watch television. And I think that was a mess-up on our part."

Over the next few installments, the game's soundtracks also featured instrumental scores akin to the tracks laid beneath NFL Films productions. By Madden NFL 16, though, the hits were back, with that game showcasing songs like Collide by James Bay and Ain't Too Cool by LunchMoney Lewis. The soundtracks have been built around new music since.

"I knew we had 'made it' when Green Day called me not too many years later and said, 'Can you come to Ocean Way Studios in Hollywood? We want to play you some songs.' " -- Steve Schnur

As Schnur sees it, the influence of EA Sports' Madden soundtracks is visible in the recent selections of musical acts for the Super Bowl halftime show. For many years, the choices seemed centered on nostalgia, but more recent selections have included artists like Beyoncé, Kendrick Lamar and Rihanna.

"As much as I loved -- and I'm not discounting a good (Bruce) Springsteen halftime Super Bowl moment -- that wasn't what the players listened to in the locker room," Schnur said.

Bills running back Darrynton Evans, an NFL veteran who spent the past three seasons with the Titans and Bears, said the Madden sound does fairly represent what can be heard in locker rooms.

"It's somewhat spot on, to a certain extent," Evans told me. "Madden kind of keeps it clean for kid purposes. But I would say it's pretty much hip-hop on both sides. You've got the male rappers and the female rappers; the female rappers are kind of hot right now, to where you got dudes listening to it like it's their favorite song. You'll be mid-practice, and you'll be hearing someone singing a song from Cardi B."

"It influenced the sports industry, first and foremost," Schnur said of Madden's role in the musical landscape. "I believe that the sound of sports has changed.

"The influence of the Madden soundtrack, the FIFA soundtrack -- been to an MLS game lately? Wow, a lot of stadiums sound just like a FIFA game. ... The Giants sound different from the Cowboys, who sound different from the Titans. ... And I think EA Sports games showed [teams] what the tone of the sports could be. Who are your future season ticket holders? Oh, by the way, they don't want the (Rolling) Stones to be the halftime show. They want Kendrick Lamar.

"They understand, now, that music is a driving factor in aligning with culture. And when that culture is defined by a virtual experience that brought people into the game itself, I think it can only serve as a template."

Every Madden player has one or two songs that will forever remind them of scrolling through menus in anticipation of an impending battle on the virtual gridiron. Mine will always be The Mooney Suzuki's Alive & Amplified, featured in Madden NFL 2005. For Madden Championship Series star Dwayne "Cleff the God" Wood, it's Young M.A's Car Confessions, a track that appeared on Madden NFL 19, right around when Wood began his journey toward MCS glory.

"You can't help but hear it when you boot up the game," Wood told me in an August phone interview. "You think about how many times you turn Madden on, these songs get stuck in your head, whether you want them to or not. You're turning the game on one to two times a day, maybe more. So you're hearing the same songs, and it just gets stuck in your head, and you start liking the song. It just shifts a lot of people to listen to music they might not have even thought about listening to."

Evans, who remembers Rotation by Stunna Girl as "probably song of the year" on Madden NFL 21, says hearing a song from a previous edition of Madden will "just put me back in that timeframe. I may not even know the title of the song, but I know the words. It's funny, my wife will hear me sing along to the song, and she'll be like, 'How do you know this?' And I'll be like, 'Oh, it was in Madden."

For evidence that Madden has reestablished its place as both an innovator and a name artists want to be associated with, look no further than Madden NFL 23, with a soundtrack curated by superstar producer Hit-Boy.

"Nobody's going to convince me otherwise that games and music culture are inextricably tied," Schnur said. "You go into a recording studio, whether it's Snoop (Dogg) or Kendrick (Lamar) or Lil Yachty, people are playing Madden."

Now, much like it was with Green Day in 2004, top artists -- Luke Combs and Jack Harlow, for example -- are aspiring to reach the same goal: Inclusion in the latest Madden game. Harlow made his second appearance on a Madden soundtrack with the August release of Madden NFL 24, and as Schnur said, "is obsessive about" and "begs to be in Madden."

"[Combs] said he was backstage in Tampa before a show playing Madden, his 'favorite game of them all,' " Schnur said. "Convincing artists was never a problem in the last 10-20 years. It is the new definition of having made it. ... Oh my god, we got a song in Madden."

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