×

As a kid growing up in Scotland, 25-year-old indie-pop singer/songwriter Joesef got his first exposure to some of his favorite bands through playing Electronic Arts’ “FIFA” video games with his brothers: everyone from Bombay Bicycle Club to the Kooks to Kings of Leon, whose early series of sync placements in the mid to late aughts were one of the franchise’s first major marks on the music industry. “I have “Sex on Fire” ingrained in my brain through ‘FIFA,’” Joesef says. “I hear some of these tunes to this day, and it just takes me right back.”

So it was a surreal experience when Joesef’s brother started playing an early digital download of “FIFA 21” and heard his brand-new song, “Does It Make You Feel Good?” soundtracking key scenes. “I’m f—in’ buzzin’!” Joesef says in his Glaswegian brogue over Zoom from his London apartment.

Not only has he scored a sync in one of his favorite video games, the newfound exposure the placement will bring is sure to bring a happier outcome than the breakup that initially inspired the driving, trumpet-laden song. “It’s a wee bit of positivity at this really shite time, at the moment.”

Once Joesef and his label AWAL were notified in late summer that “Does It Make You Feel Good?” had secured a spot in “FIFA 21,” they began coordinating what EA Sports and its music team look for from many artist and label partners: an entire release strategy synced to the game’s global drop.

“Does It Make You Feel Good?” was released to streaming services on October 7, the day after the game’s digital release, while the EP of the same name arrived October 9, which helped the single score spots on 22 of Spotify’s global New Music Friday playlists and 43 of Apple Music’s New Daily playlists. That collective exposure, coupled with EA Sports’ own FIFA’ 21 Spotify playlist (26,000+ followers), helped “Feel Good” achieve a 680% leap in total streams from October 8 to 9, and a full-week boost of 1,500%. In its first week of release, the song has been streamed more than 212,000 times on Spotify alone.

Such a hat trick for an emerging artist like Joesef is one of the many reasons why Jessica Kashdan, manager of creative synch at AWAL, calls “FIFA 21” the “holy grail in the entire sync business” — and not just the gaming industry, she’s quick to clarify. “It’s because of how pivotal and integrated the music is into the soundtrack. And ‘FIFA’ has this captivating audience that’s gravitating around the music. In my personal experience, I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard someone say, ‘Oh I know this music, it’s from “FIFA.”’”

While Electronic Arts has yet to release official figures around sales or audience for “FIFA 21,” recent precedent suggests it could soon be on par with the 10 million players the publisher achieved in the first two weeks of release of “FIFA 20” last October. As of 2018, EA Sports announced it had sold more than 260 million copies of “FIFA” games since 1993.

So what makes a song “FIFA” worthy? It’s a constantly evolving definition for Steve Schnur, president of EA Music Group, and Cybele Pettus, Electronic Arts’ senior music supervisor, who’ve been A&R’ing the music of “FIFA” since 2002. “There’s always been a tone that’s really global, something that could travel to the football sound of Italy, or what soccer in Sweden could sound like to someone in Argentina,” Schnur says. “For a while that was a lot of guitars, a lot of rhythm, but it’s evolved. It used to influence culture, and now it’s become culture.”

For Pettus, it’s any song that gives her a “gut feeling” that tells her this is what popular music could sound like for the year to come. That’s why “FIFA” was one of the first syncs for now-ubiquitous artists like Billie Eilish (“You Should See Me In A Crown” in 2018’s “FIFA ’19”) and songs like Kaleo’s “Way Down We Go” (featured in 2016’s “FIFA ’17”), among many other taste-making bands from Chromeo to Matt & Kim.

In the case of Joesef, “his voice literally had me immediately,” Pettus says. “It’s just so full, so warm, so earnest and the music really got me. Once I became obsessed with him as an artist and thought he was really something special, it was a matter of looking at the different songs to choose from and [“Does It Make You Feel Good?”] was my favorite. We landed there, but it was really about him as an artist overall that spoke to me.”

Having strong relationships helps, too. Of the 100-plus songs featured on the “FIFA 21” and “FIFA 21 VOLTA” playlists, 21 are from AWAL and its parent company Kobalt Music, who begin the pitch process for each “FIFA” release as early as February – if not sooner.

“I already have ideas going up for ‘FIFA 22,’” says Bradley Patter, associate director of creative synch at Kobalt Music. “We basically treat it as a year-round process. We’re in constant communication with our writers and artists to collect any demos they’re working on so we can do playbacks with the EA team at the top of the year and sit down with them. They’ll listen to songs, we’ll get feedback on what’s working, what’s not, which artists they want to hear more from and hopefully whittle down to a few placements.”

And with few exceptions – Tame Impala is the closest to an A-list artist on this year’s soundtrack, via album cut “Is It True” from February’s “The Slow Rush” — timing is everything. “We used to say back in the days of CDs, if people were submitting us music after it’s already shrink-wrapped with artwork, it’s too late,” Pettus says.

“It doesn’t necessarily need to debut with ‘FIFA,’ but it needs to be fresh and forward,” Schnur adds. “If we feel it’s going to be a powerful marker sonically in a person’s life, where they look back and say, ‘Oh I remember that song from “FIFA 18,’” then that’s what we want.”

Beyond Joesef, there’s plenty of other signs that the music of “FIFA 21” is already connecting. Streams for psych-pop singer Alfie Templeman’s “Wish I Was Younger,” from his July EP for AWAL “Happiness in Liquid Form,” jumped 1,200% on the day the “FIFA 21” soundtrack was announced and, to date, has garnered over 45,000 streams from the official FIFA 21 Spotify playlist. Another AWAL-distributed artist, Chløë Black, has seen streams for her September release “Sacrifice” spike more than 100,000 since the game’s October 9 release, with 35,000 streams via the FIFA 21 Spotify playlist.

Being able to measure such a direct cause-and-effect impact is what excites Schnur more than any artist’s Instagram following. He likens breaking acts via “FIFA” games to his days of working for Clive Davis at Arista Records in the ‘90s. “Every time Clive would find an artist, he would challenge you to envision whether that artist could headline Madison Square Garden,” Schnur says. “I still listen to music like I’m 14 years old. You have to feel about music like it’s the most exciting thing in your life.”

Songs for Screens is a Variety column sponsored by Anzie Blue, a wellness company and café based in Nashville. It is written by Andrew Hampp, founder of music marketing consultancy 1803 LLC and former correspondent for Billboard. Each week, the column highlights noteworthy use of music in advertising and marketing campaigns, as well as film and TV. Follow Hampp on Twitter at @ahampp.