When you think of the words “Ubisoft” and “music,” you likely think about Just Dance or Rocksmith, two games in which music is an integral part of the gameplay experience. But imagine The Crew 2 without The Black Keys’ “Howlin’ For You” or Watch Dogs 2 without N.E.R.D.’s “Spaz.” These games, and so many others, rely on licensed music to add color to their worlds, elevate emotions, and entertain players. That’s where people like Coralie Zaza come in. As a music-licensing specialist, Zaza is responsible for securing the rights to include pre-existing music in Ubisoft’s games. Whether the song shows up in-game or in a trailer, her work covers nearly every Ubisoft property.
We spoke with Zaza to find out more about her journey to join Ubisoft, the importance of music licensing, and why she’s always ready for the next adventure.
Tell us a bit about your background.
Coralie Zaza: I grew up in a small town in France near the Alps. It’s a beautiful town, but there wasn’t much to do, and I remember it now more fondly than while I was living there. I always knew I wanted to live in a bigger city and explore all my options. Leaving for university at 17 was my first escape into a different world and I took advantage of our affordable university system in France, and the ability to go on international exchanges as much as possible. I went to six different universities, I traveled everywhere I could, I studied every topic I could. I could never commit to one topic so I studied English, modern literature, philosophy, communications, theatre, music, new media. I couldn’t decide where I wanted to live either. I went to school all around France, but I also lived in Athens, New York, and Miami. I loved the rush of uprooting and starting from scratch, and learning from the ground up as opposed to learning only in a classroom. My early 20s were spent traveling and living in different places, and I loved it.
Was it useful from a professional perspective? That’s really questionable (laughs). My degree ended up being something arts-related that really doesn’t translate well into English, so it was hard to summarize my education for people.
How did you get involved in music?
CZ: I always knew I wanted to work in music, even though I wasn’t sure what my options were at first. When I was a teenager, I spent so much time and money going to shows and traveling all around Europe with my friends to see our favorite bands. I loved it so much, I would count down the days until the show, and it would be this incredible rush leading up to it. It’s what I lived for. I knew it was the industry I wanted to be a part of. That’s probably why I had such a meandering path in my education, because there’s no straight path towards getting into music. I’m not a musician, so there’s no straight path there.
After I interned and worked at multiple music venues, booking agencies, and labels, I worked for a music licensing agency in Toronto. It was my first “big girl” job. I really learned to love the analytical part of it. Obviously I already had a love for music, but my more logistical brain enjoyed it too. I realized that the music industry is not all Rolling Stones, fireworks, and Coachella. It was slightly depressing, however, because I was working in mechanical royalties, which are the royalties you receive from selling CDs or vinyl. As we all know, these things aren’t really selling anymore. I was sending checks to artists that were only like 75 cents. I felt like the industry was dying, but I wasn’t ready to give up yet and move to a different industry, so I went in search of new perspectives.
So how did you come to join Ubisoft?
CZ: I had been living in Toronto for five years at the time, which for me felt very static, because I love moving and discovering new places. I needed a change of scenery so I moved to Montreal and worked at a music production studio for a bit and a friend sent me a job posting for Ubisoft. I fit the description and requirements, it was all music licensing, stuff I knew how to do. I googled the company and was like, “What? Videogames?” I was confident in my ability to do the job from a music standpoint, but I was worried that knowing a lot about the technicalities of video game would be needed for the job. All I knew about games was from playing Rayman or Ocarina of Time two decades ago. I was so nervous I sort of blurted out “I’m not a gamer!” during the interview (laughs). It was totally fine, I realized once I started the job that most of my team are not gamers either!
You mentioned that you always want to try something new, but music has seemingly been a constant in your life. Why is that?
CZ: It stems from a passion. I love music, literature, art, but I am not an artist. I respect them entirely and I realize without the artists, my life would be quite dull. I always knew I wanted to encourage the industry in some capacity. I wanted to work behind the scenes because I know I’m good with numbers and papers, and I’m very organized. So I want to join what I’m good at with what I’m passionate about. When I was young, my favorite thing to do was to go into the record store to just look at albums for week before I was able to afford them. I don’t want this to die, although it is shifting. I don’t want for us, the audience, to take art for granted; and I don’t want the artists to think there’s no money or future in trying to live off their art and stop. If I can participate in and encourage the arts and entertainment industry, I feel like I have a role to play.
What does a music-licensing specialist do?
CZ: I’m one of three music licensing specialist in the music department here at Ubisoft. We’re essentially the business link between the production and marketing teams at Ubisoft and the various music industry actors – the labels, the publishers, sometimes the artists themselves. Production or marketing comes to us with a request for music; either they already know what they want and our job is to find the owner of the song and negotiate the use of it, or they have no idea what they want and ask us for input. Depending on the budget, we then send pitch requests to our partners and find a song, or we put them in touch with our music supervisors, who are the creative leads at Ubisoft Music. They oversee the original compositions and general music cohesion of the productions.
Licensing specialists only deal with licensing external music. It’s a lot of Just Dance and Rocksmith, but really we work across all brands and all studios. Once a song is negotiated and put into a game or trailer, then we ensure that all the paperwork is finalized. It’s a lot of processes. We try to maintain deals with labels and music libraries as well.
Can you give examples of licensed music in Ubisoft games outside of Just Dance and Rocksmith?
CZ: It depends on the game, honestly, but there are a ton. If you’re playing The Crew 2 or Watch Dogs 2 and listen to the radio, all of those songs are licensed. If you’re playing Assassin’s Creed, it has almost no licensed music at all, because it’s all composed. Just Dance and Rocksmith obviously keep us occupied, but my first big project at Ubisoft was the upcoming Watch Dogs: Legion. We work on nearly every franchise, but the biggest ones in-game would be Just Dance, Rocksmith, The Crew, Steep, Far Cry, and Watch Dogs.
Marketing also keeps us very busy, because for every trailer you see, there’s music, and that’s our department, too. It’s a lot of work, because we have to keep track of all the trailers and all the versions of it. The process depends on the game and the scope of the trailer. Before I was at Ubisoft, my manager, Nikolaos Bardanis, and our music supervisor Bénédicte Ouimet worked on the Assassin’s Creed Origins trailer with a song by Leonard Cohen, and it wasn’t easy. It was shortly after Cohen passed, and his estate took a lot of convincing to let us use the song in our trailer. There was also an added level because they had to negotiate the rights to re-edit the song for the trailer as well. In the end it all worked out, because everyone loved the trailer. My manager was invited along with Leonard Cohen’s manager to conferences here in Montreal, and spoke about the inclusion of the song, which was reaching an entirely different audience through the trailer. It can be hard to convince the artist or label, but it’s often great for their visibility.
Do production teams just approach you with a list of songs and ask you to get the rights to them?
CZ: Usually I work with the game’s audio director, and they give me a huge list, way more songs than could even be in the game, because for every one song I can secure, there’s 10 that I can’t. People can say no for any number of reasons. On a good day, I can get a track license in about two days, if it’s a small indie artist who owns all the rights to their song. Realistically, clearing a song can take weeks, months, or even years. That’s happened before on Just Dance; a song took two years to clear.
For a big game like Watch Dogs: Legion, it’s a conversation between the audio director, music supervisor, and myself. The audio director comes to us with a list and the music supervisor ensures there’s a unified theme among the songs. I even ended up suggesting some songs, because I know British music so well. I was excited to get to leave my mark on Watch Dogs, but suggesting songs isn’t normally part of our job.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
CZ: I’d say one of my favorite aspects is working with up-and-coming artists, the ones that aren’t very famous yet. Putting a lesser-known artist in a game, and seeing them grow because of the visibility of the game. I’ve gotten a few notes from smaller bands after we include them in our games saying that they’ve noticed their listeners have started to grow and diversify. It always makes me happy when I realize the impact that we have; it’s not just monetary, it’s the visibility impact. It’s great to license a Katy Perry song for Just Dance, but working with smaller artists reminds me why I do this job.
Now that you’ve been at Ubisoft for two years, has your perception of games changed? Have you started to play them more?
CZ: One thing that I am definitely more aware of now is the educational aspect of games. I am thinking mostly of Assassin’s Creed and the Discovery Tour educational mode, which I find fascinating. They had us play it and even as a non-gamer, I truly enjoyed it, and could see how videogames can absolutely be used in an approachable format to kids and students. Also the fact that the historical background of the game is so realistic, all the research that has been put into it and can be reused or seen from a different light is fascinating. I wasn’t aware of these accuracies until I started working at Ubisoft.
Music seems to be such an important part of a good trailer. Do you have a favorite Ubisoft trailer?
CZ: A lot of my favorites are the ones I helped secure. One of my toughest negotiations was for a Blur song for Ghost Recon Breakpoint. The song is “Song 2” by Blur, but it’s actually a cover by 2wei. It’s one of my favorite songs and an amazing cover. The negotiation was really tricky, so I’m proud of that one.
I really love the Leonard Cohen one for Assassin’s Creed Origins. It’s almost a cliché answer, but I listen to it and I get chills. Another one I really like, and it’s one of the first negotiations I did, was a For Honor Marching Fire trailer. The song is “Soldier” by Fleurie.
What advice would you give for someone who wants to do what you do?
CZ: It’s nothing out of the ordinary. Network, work hard, be nice, and remain curious and willing to learn. Résumés aren’t always linear. Make space and time for opportunities that come your way. You may go through different roles and experiences that may take you somewhere you didn’t know you wanted to be. I’m not a tour manager like I wanted to be at 16, but I know now it is not a lifestyle I would have enjoyed. You never know what will happen along the way. Life has a way of throwing opportunities at you that you may not expect.
For more interviews like this, check out our Women of Ubisoft series.