Dream Job Q&A with ‘NBA 2K’ Soundtrack Specialist Mike Howard

Jay-Z, Pharrell, LeBron James and Travis Scott have all helped curate ‘2K’ music

mike howard nba 2k mobile
Courtesy of Mike Howard

Mike Howard has the millennial version of the dream job. As the soundtrack manager for the NBA 2K gaming franchise, the 32-year-old's duties include wading through the deluge of new music to make sure NBA 2K has the freshest songs.

The music in NBA 2K has gone from complementary to center stage ever since Jay-Z became the first celebrity curator for the NBA 2K13 soundtrack in 2012. Since then, Pharrell, LeBron James and most recently Travis Scott have put their hands on the sounds you hear when you’re windmilling dunks. Now that the NBA 2K soundtrack has moved from novelty to an anticipated selection of music, the question remains: How much further can the team at 2K go with it?

Howard spoke with ONE37pm about which artists have come up to him asking to be on NBA 2K soundtracks, who he has his ears on for the NBA2K20 soundtrack, and how NBA 2K can bring virtual concerts to fans.

How new is that soundtrack manager position?

Mike Howard: I mean it's definitely something that we've had for quite a while. I'd say since 2K15, music has become pretty important. Even before then we had Jay-Z curating NBA 2K13. So, I mean it grew from that year forward, but over the last five or six years, it's definitely been put on people's radar. Artists are talking about wanting to get put on the NBA 2K soundtrack, and they talk much about 2K in their raps.

Artists have asked to be on the soundtrack? Who?

Howard: I feel like every artist I've talked to over the years has said, “I want to be on the NBA 2K soundtrack. What do I have to do to get on it? Pick my music this year. I got new tracks dropping.” So, like Roddy Ricch, 6Lack and Trippie Redd.

How does the music work in NBA 2K? Can people switch between songs on their own or is it a preset playlist?

Howard: There's definitely an option for people to go in and switch on and off tracks. It's called The 2K Beats menu. It's pretty accessible. You go to options, find 2K Beats, and you can pretty much go through the entire soundtrack and select certain songs. We even have it broken up into playlists. So, if you wanted to, you could just listen to the 2K Classic songs, which are just a lot songs that I think over the years have been a big deal, or 2K Hits, which is what we've called it in previous years. We also have curators. We had Travis Scott last year, and he had has his own playlist and then all of the songs that he's either really enjoyed over the years or some classic songs to pay homage to Houston. Those would only play when his playlist is selected.

How far in advance was it that Travis Scott was involved with curating the soundtrack for NBA 2K19?

Howard: He was really a pleasure to work with. We sent him a bunch of song picks. He was really going through and just checking out a lot of things that we had picked prior. He loved them. Then he had added a lot of his songs from Astroworld. He also added some Houston classics. He also plays the game a lot, too, which is not super common for a lot of those guys. He'll be hopping in the Park, going around playing with gamers. It's pretty cool.

How long after 2K19 did you start working on the soundtrack for NBA 2K20?

Howard: I'm a music lover. I make beats myself. I'm always listening to music. I make playlists on the side for everything else I'm doing. When the team is ready to start working on 2K20 soundtrack, I'm already ready to go. I already have ideas and playlist picks. I'm always following information that's out there in the world. For instance, Future's starting to drop music, so we know something's going to be coming soon, at some point. That to me makes me want to make sure I get Future on [the NBA 2K20 soundtrack] because he's definitely going to be dropping some heat.

What blogs, podcasts and playlists are you listening to these days that's helping you pick what's going to be on the next soundtrack?

Howard: For me, I watch The Joe Budden Podcast a lot. There's a lot of comedy there. But, I also like his insight from the artist's perspective, the type of music that's going out, and how people are reacting when certain songs come on. I also watch a lot of the stuff Genius puts out. I feel like the guests they've been having recently are industry professionals who really know what they're talking about or are working with artists they're signed to. Even Gary [Vaynerchuk] is having artists come on to his show, and getting their perspective on what their mindset is when they're making music and why they make certain decisions when they're making music.

During the process we have to get the music cleared via the NBA, go through the lyrics. 50 songs is what we get at the end of the day, but we have to start with 100 and 150.

- Mike Howard

Is there a limit of the amount of songs you can have on the soundtrack?

Howard: When we were on NBA 2K13 and 2K14 era, that was Xbox 360 and PS3 [PlayStation 3]. We could only have 25 tracks because that's what the disc would allow data for. Once we upgraded to Xbox One and PS4, we can now have 50 tracks. During the process we have to get the music cleared via the NBA, go through the lyrics. 50 songs is what we get at the end of the day, but we have to start with 100 and 150. Then, that boils down to the last 50. Songs might get knocked off the list because the NBA might not approve the song or the lyrics might be too explicit.

What was a song you wish could've been on an NBA 2K soundtrack that wasn't?

Howard: Let's talk about NBA 2K19. “Sicko Mode” was a really good example. Astroworld came out at a certain time period, and the soundtrack was already made, approved, and it was already in the game. So, we had to add “Sicko Mode” much later after it released. That's one example that, at one point, I was like, “Man I wish we could've got that in.”

What producers would you want to curate an NBA 2K game?

Howard: We worked with Boi-1da, Murda Beatz and Pierre Borne on NBA 2K19. It would be amazing to work with one of those guys again.

Since 2014, streams from Microsoft's music streaming service Groove, formerly known as Xbox Music, have been counted toward a song's success on Billboard. Do you see a future where that extends to the streams done on NBA 2K?

Howard: I think that's a really interesting topic, and I think that's something that's going to probably evolve over the next 5 to 10 years. Video games being such a highly consumed entertainment platform, they all need music, and they all have music. Whether it's music that's composed and not really on iTunes, Spotify or anything, or it's just Top 40 music that's listened to day in and day out. I think it would be a good idea to one day merge the two, involving video game soundtracks on Billboard. There's so many artists I'd love to see charting on Billboard because of being on NBA 2K.

You also said in a previous interview that you can see NBA 2K turn into a concert. How would that go and why do you think so?

Howard: Park mode, for us, is a big deal. So, we've been adding modes within Park mode, which was Park After Dark for NBA 2K17. That was our virtual concert. You'd come out to the park, 99 other players are on the park and it's glow in the dark. It looks super different from the rest of game. It’s almost like a Tron-type look. Then we'd have a celebrity DJ. So, we had Snoop [Dogg] do one park. We had DJ Premier. Then, we had Future do one, as well. They each played 55 to 60 tracks that were not on the soundtrack. We really scanned Future and Premier into the game for that. You're giving the gamer a new experience that's like three hours long. We felt like it was a really big success and people really enjoyed it. That's 99 percent of the time what we're thinking when it comes to concerts and things of that nature.

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