My Music Row Story: BMI’s Shannon Sanders
The “My Music Row Story” weekly column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals serve in key roles that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column spotlights the invaluable people that keep the wheels rolling and the music playing.
Shannon Sanders is Exec. Dir., Creative at BMI, based in the company’s Nashville office. Along with the Creative team, Sanders is responsible for signing and nurturing new talent to develop BMI’s diverse community of songwriters and publishers across various genres. He supports BMI songwriters through both creative and administrative services. Sanders works closely with Clay Bradley, who oversees the Nashville team, on a wide range of industry and community events designed to benefit songwriters including the monthly showcase series, “BMI Presents at the Bluebird.” Jelly Roll, K. Michelle, Allison Russell and The War and Treaty are just a few of the affiliates he champions at BMI.
Sanders is also a Grammy-winning producer and songwriter. He has collaborated with John Legend, India.Arie, Chris Stapleton, Nicki Minaj, KALEO, The Fisk Jubilee Singers and many more. An involved community member, Sanders is President of Nashville Music Equality and a board member of Recording Academy Nashville Chapter, the Nashville Ballet, CMA and ACM. He is also an ACM Diversity Task Force Chair.
MusicRow: You’re a rarity as a Nashville native. Tell me about your upbringing.
I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was a pastor. My grandmother was a nurse and she sang. I initially started to play music for my grandmother at church. I also played trumpet in school. I was encouraged to be creative and to explore that side of myself. In hindsight, I see brilliance in that from my grandparents’ perspective. It kept me out of trouble and kept me involved.
Besides your grandparents, were there any others that encouraged your creativity when you were young?
Teachers. I went to Hillsboro High School. I was always encouraged to go to the next level and to do the next more challenging thing. I definitely had support from teachers and older musicians at church. I grew up in environment of encouragement.
What were your dreams then?
My dreams were to just be as good as I could be. My business aspirations came later, my early dreams were initially more performance based. You have success in areas and then you evolve over time, but initially it was really just about being the best I could possibly be from a performance standpoint.
When did you start making your own music?
I just always have. Creating for me was never about the regurgitation of music. I never played in cover bands and it was never about learning other people’s music. The closest thing I got to that was learning songs in church. My friends were musical, so we made up songs. We would get together, write songs and perform. By the time we were in high school, we were opening for some pretty major acts that would come to Nashville. So it was always about creating for me.
I was about 15 or 16 when [my friends and I] first started putting out records as Technik. At the time, Hillsboro was the only high school town with a studio. I started taking studio [classes] in ninth grade. So I was doing that, playing in church, an all-state trumpet player, programming drum machines, writing songs and beat boxing with my friends.
After high school, you went to Tennessee State University. Tell me about that time.
Going to TSU was strictly a musical decision. The band was so phenomenal—they just won a GRAMMY in February and they were just as phenomenal [when I went there]. I loved the legacy of the band TSU. I loved what it represented. It was important to me, just to be a part of that organization. I learned so much at TSU. That’s where I exponentially grew musically, not only from having great instruction from professors, but I really learned a lot from other students.
How did you start working with artists outside of your own creative circle in Nashville?
I made my own record. That wound up becoming an incredible business card. That’s when the phone started ringing and there was a lot more opportunity.
One of the most pivotal moments was when I started to work with India.Arie. The world hadn’t heard of her yet. She was familiar with my music and she was actually signed out of Nashville, so we started to create. Her voice was so phenomenal, her platform and what she was all about was just so refreshing. She was speaking of songs of self worth, self love and songs that spoke to healing of humanity. [Working with her] just made me want to pour everything that I had in her, so that’s what I did. It really paid off, being able to be with her for so long and support her mission. And a lot of things came from that—I got to work with a lot of other folks. It was pivotal in helping me realize that you can make music that meant something. You can have mainstream success with music with a message. That’s what was so impactful.
I got my first GRAMMY nomination with her and then we came back the next year and won R&B Album of the Year, so that was my first win.
You won your most recent GRAMMY in 2021 with the Fisk Jubilee Singers’s Celebrating Fisk! (The 150th Anniversary Album). What was that like?
So satisfying. It was the first HBCU to win a GRAMMY—and now TSU has, too. It was especially satisfying that it was accomplished right before Dr. Kwami passed.
The first GRAMMYs were exciting, especially doing the kind of music I was doing in Nashville at the time. It just started a lot of conversations and put in me in a lot of rooms. It really started a whole new trajectory for me, which is how I got into leadership in these organizations. [Having success] led to me being the voice and being invited to tables. Everybody needs to be represented at these tables, so everybody’s heard. I’m just really conscious of the voice I represent and that’s it. I’m not trying to be anything more than I am, but I definitely find myself being invited to tables where people are interested in having diverse perspectives.
You joined BMI’s Nashville Creative team in 2020. Tell me about going from strictly a creator to an executive.
It was interesting because I got to know a lot of folks in our creative community as a creator, so now as an executive, it just gives me an opportunity to create opportunity. I can create the kinds of opportunities that I was looking for as a creator with Clay [Bradley] and BMI’s support. That’s the beauty of now.
I’m in a season of service. I’m excited that know I’m able to be a magnet of that energy. People are interested in these conversations and interested in evolution. I don’t like to say change a lot—change means to become something different—to evolve is to become a better version of what already is.
You are one of the highest ranking Black executives in the history of the Nashville music business. From your seat now, what advice would you give young executives who look up to you?
I would say be yourself. I always default to authenticity. You don’t want to be anywhere where you are required to compromise who you are. That’s what’s awesome about my role at BMI. I’m not required to be something other than who I am. They know I’m creative. They know I’m Black. They know I’m from here. They know I have a heart for community and creators. At the end of the day, it’s just about being you.
The studio doesn’t look like [the Nashville music business]. It’s like the locker room in sports—there’s no racism in the locker room. We’re trying to win this game together, we’re on the same team. That’s what it’s like in the studio. We’re trying to make the business look more like the creative rooms. The studios already look like that.
What is the most fulfilling part about what you do?
Creating opportunities for creators and resolving administrative issues for them, which can be the most frustrating thing in the world. Just being able to answer questions and being able to bring about an understanding about what we do. Helping them understand something or to fix something ultimately means putting more money in creative people’s pockets. At our core, that’s what we do. To be able to help people feed their families via their creativity is the most fulfilling thing.