Nancy Shapiro

December 3, 2012

Anyone familiar with Nancy Shapiro knows she doesn’t fit the profile of a heavy metal music fan. But anyone familiar with Shapiro also knows she would not let personal preference keep her from advancing the cause of the Recording Academy, a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives and careers of those involved in making and recording music.

In the mid-1990s, Shapiro traveled to Florida with the goal of creating a new chapter for the Recording Academy—the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. A Recording Academy employee since 1985, she began as director of the Nashville chapter before moving up the ranks. Shortly after being named national membership director, she set out to open several new offices, including one in Florida. She visited music centers such as Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, the latter known as a base for heavy metal acts, to knock on doors and talk to people in person.

While in Orlando, she had learned of a popular heavy metal nightclub. Seeing an opportunity to recruit new members and discuss the Academy’s mission and accomplishments, she decided to visit the club alone—against the wishes of her family and colleagues. The bold move helped the Recording Academy established a Florida office. She proved just as persuasive elsewhere, as her organization soon set up outposts in Texas, Philadelphia, the Pacific Northwest, and Washington, D.C.

Such efforts led Shapiro to her current post as senior vice president of membership services for the Recording Academy, making her the prestigious organization’s highest-ranking female executive.

Shapiro reflected on her career as 2012 honoree of the Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum, an annual interview program recognizing a music industry executive who, like the late Louise Scruggs, has had an indelible impact on music.

The forum was established in 2007 by the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the Gibson Foundation to explore issues pertaining to women working behind the scenes in the music industry. Each year, the forum honors “a music industry leader who can be seen as a legatee of pioneering agent-manager Louise Scruggs,” said museum senior vice president Liz Thiels, in her introduction.

All the previous honorees were present at the 2012 program: Thiels, manager Denise Stiff, managers and record label executives Mary Martin and Bonnie Garner, and television executive Sarah Trahern. Michael Gray, museum editor, hosted the evening, which included remarks by the president of Gibson Guitar Corporation, Dave Berryman, and the president of the Recording Academy, Neil Portnow.

In recognizing Shapiro, Berryman said, “Your outstanding work is faithful to the passion and excellence that was Louise’s hallmark.” The Gibson Foundation makes a charitable donation in the honoree’s name. Shapiro chose the Recording Academy’s MusiCares program as her beneficiary.

Portnow, in Nashville from the Academy’s headquarters in Los Angeles, said, “Nancy has set an example for women in the music industry for years and within our organization in particular…. A lot of the way the Academy has grown and developed and looks today is because of Nancy. At the core of what we do, we’re a membership organization, and her responsibilities over the years have really been to our members, to make sure they are happy, pleased, and have a good experience. It’s because of that great member satisfaction that we have grown to the size we are today.”

Shapiro’s interview revealed not only her friendly yet dedicated manner of doing her work, but also her humor. Gray started by saying he wanted to discuss her roots, so Shapiro ran her fingers through her hair and said, “Oh, I got those done,” drawing a burst of laughter from the audience in the museum’s Ford Theater.

Born in Memphis, Tennessee, Shapiro said she grew up in a Leave It to Beaver style home, with plenty of love, encouragement, and fun. “Music was a big part of my life growing up,” she said, noting she loved the R&B music prevalent in Memphis. She and her brother Warren once went to Beale Street, the center of Memphis’s live music scene, and interviewed local music luminaries Piano Red and Furry Lewis on a toy red tape recorder. She also loved rock & roll and, in her parents’ home, had a photo of Paul McCartney taped to the ceiling above her bed.

Attending the University of Oklahoma, her goal was to get her “M.R.S.” degree, she said, meaning she wanted to find a good man to wed. “And I did,” she continued, noting she has been married to Steve Shapiro for forty-three years. “College was very successful because I met my husband.”

She had studied education because she believed women had two career choices: teaching or nursing. “I didn’t know there were other options,” she said.

After having her first child in 1971, she focused on parenting and running a household. In 1975, her husband accepted a job in Nashville, and the Shapiro family moved to Middle Tennessee with their two children, ages two and four. “At the time, I didn’t have any idea that I would ever want to go to work,” she said.

After turning thirty, Shapiro decided she wanted a job. Her lone condition, she said, “was that it be fun.” Most interviews asked her how fast she could type, and she told them she couldn’t. At an interview with a local TV station, the general manager explained that he needed someone to type letters and get coffee. The interview ended when Shapiro responded, “You know, I need someone to type my letters and get my coffee, too.”

She eventually became a catering director at a hotel, and then a publicist for a TV production company owned by country star Larry Gatlin and singer and music executive Joe Moscheo. When the company folded, Moscheo told her NARAS was seeking an executive director. She asked what NARAS was, and Moscheo told her it was the organization responsible for the Grammy Awards.

“Fun,” Shapiro responded. “I’m going for that job.”

The job interview took place at Spence Manor, a hotel on Nashville’s Music Row known for its party atmosphere and guitar-shaped pool. Shapiro walked into a hotel suite for the interview and noticed the powerful music industry insiders—all of whom sat on the NARAS board—were drinking Heineken beers at 10:30 in the morning. “I thought that was the craziest thing,” she said.

After three more interviews—“sans beer,” Shapiro said—she was hired. She quickly learned how small her budget would be for managing the Nashville chapter. She worked alone for the first two years, in a windowless office with a broken chair, a desk, a file cabinet, and a typewriter, with few office supplies. Her father furnished the office with a couch, a coffee table, and two end tables. She used the photocopier at the performing rights society SESAC and the printer at Warner Bros. Records.

“Now we have all the paper clips we need,” she joked. “We have the office supplies we need. Neil came in and got the hamsters off the wheel and made sure we are running the way we should be.”

Before long, Shapiro recruited the heads of record labels and other leading industry firms for the Nashville board. “It was all the big movers and shakers,” she said. “Everybody really propped me up in the beginning. I had a lot of good mentors.”

During the program, Gray displayed a posed industry photograph with Shapiro as the only woman among a room full of men, all past or present members of the Recording Academy’s local leadership.

“There’s not a lot of gender diversity there, is there?” Shapiro said with a laugh. She then pointed out that the balance has changed significantly in the last decade, since Neil Portnow became Academy president.

Shapiro touched on a difficult time in her life when she lost her mother, father, and son Scott within months of each other. “You don’t heal from losing a child,” she said. Family members help her “get through it every day,” she said, adding, “I have pain that will last forever. But I have so much joy in my life, and the joy I have comes from my family, and also from my Academy family, and I’m sincere about that. They’ve seen me go through ups and downs, and they’ve been great.”

Shapiro discussed other Recording Academy duties. She oversees all of the Recording Academy’s chapters, which serve 22,000 members, as well as the Academy’s Corporate Governance, Grammy U, Producers & Engineers Wing, and Grammy Professional Development. She also talked of her role on the Music City Music Council as well as serving as chairman of Metro’s Music Makes Us, a program initiated by Mayor Karl Dean to make Nashville a leader in music education in public schools.

“We have a mayor that, believe it or not, is the only mayor in the country who is adding music programs to public schools,” she said, noting that twenty-two music programs were added to Metro Public Schools in 2012, including opening a professional-level recording studio in a Nashville high school.

The program featured several examples of the grit and determination Shapiro has displayed in her job duties over the years. “I think the message is, don’t ever be afraid,” Shapiro said. “I was never afraid to fail. I was afraid not to try.”

—Michael McCall