My Music Row Story: ASCAP’s Mike Sistad
The weekly “My Music Row Story” column features notable members of the Nashville music industry selected by the MusicRow editorial team. These individuals hold key positions that help advance and promote the success of our industry. This column shines a light on the invaluable people who spin the wheels and keep the music playing.
Minnesota native and music industry executive Mike Sistad has worked on both the creative and business side of the music industry. As a musician, he has performed throughout most of North America, including stops at the Houston Rodeo and the Calgary Stampede, as well as radio and television performances, including Keillor Garrisonit’s A Prairie Housemate and the Grand Olé Opry.
A graduate of Belmont University, Sistad worked with legendary Muscle Shoals producer/musician Barry Beckett; as an A&R framework for Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan with Arista Records Nashville; and as a member of the group for 2 times ASCAP Country Songwriter / Artist of the Year Phil Vassar.
In 2001, the late and legendary Connie Bradley recruited Sistad to join the team of ASCAP members. In his current role as Vice President of Nashville Membership, Sistad continues to work with all aspects of the music industry as it relates to songwriters, artists and publishing companies. He contributed to the success of Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Old Dominion, Osborne Brothers, Carly Pearce and many more. Sistad previously served as Board Governor and Chapter Advisor for the Recording Academy’s Nashville Chapter, in addition to being an AIMP Nashville Board Member, CMA, ACM Fellow, and Alumnus. student of Leadership Music.
Music Row: I didn’t know you were a musician before you got into the business. Tell me about your musical education.
I’ve been making music for as long as I can remember. My mother is an organist and pianist in our little Lutheran church in Minnesota. She is 87 years old and she is still the church organist. So music has always been part of my life, from the beginning with performance and acting.
In high school, I ended up playing in a band on the weekends with a bunch of friends. My last year, [the band competed in] The Country Showdown contest. It was 1982, and our band ended up winning in Minnesota and representing Minnesota in the national contest here in Nashville. I was about to graduate from high school and instead of just having fun playing – which it was – all the guys in the band thought if we took this a little more seriously, maybe we could do something with that.
The band’s original name was Bean Ball Barnett and the Back Behind the Barn Boys. Eventually we figured out that nobody wanted to be Bean Ball Barnett, so we shortened the name to The back behind the barn boys. Of course, it started out as a joke for us, but we quickly got a following and didn’t think we had to change the name! The Barn Boys became the shortened version. We were booked through the Good Music Agency (GMA) of Minneapolis, Minnesota, which was a training ground for many booking agents who traveled to Nashville over the years.
How did you come to Belmont University?
I started college for a semester and quit to become a full-time musician, every parent’s dream for their kids. I [traveled with the band] full time for about six years. I started a family in the middle of it and decided that I didn’t want to travel and go all the time anymore. So I started considering going back to school and Belmont was on the radar for me.
What was your first step after graduation?
I did an internship with Barry Beckett, a very famous Muscle Shoals musician and producer here in town, for about a year. During my next internship, I moved from Barry Beckett to Arista Records. It was very early and really small at that time.
I went there as an intern. I thought, “I’m going to check out this label and I’ll be disappointed with the record industry.” As a musician, you think these are the big bad guys. But I ended up loving it. I didn’t know Tim [DuBois], but I knew he was a songwriter and ran the office. It was very important to me that there was a musician running the office. I ended up working my way into A&R, which was really the only thing I wanted to do.
What happened to you when Arista closed?
We kind of knew what was coming before it happened. Phil Vassar was one of the artists I worked with and he had the guts to invite me back on the road as a musician, so I did. Connie Bradley had also reached out to me while I was still at Arista. She said, “I don’t have a job for you right now, but I’d like you to think about it when the time comes. I would like to call you if you are interested. I said, “Absolutely, I would love to do that.”
Phil was just getting started. I was excited to get on the road and start playing with some of the guys in the band and remembering all the reasons I started. [I toured with Phil] for about a year.
Then Connie reached out to talk to me and she actually called Phil to talk to him about it too. She came to the CRS New Faces show when Phil performed. I played with him on this show. That’s when she officially asked me to join her.
Now, more than 20 years later, you are ASCAP’s Nashville Vice President of Membership. What things did you appreciate about transitioning to the business side?
I like being on the business side, but I always work with the people who write the songs, the people who sing the songs and the people who play the songs. That’s where my heart is: the creative community, the people who make music. It’s fun to work in a place where we belong to our members. ASCAP is a little different from other PROs in that we actually belong to the authors and publishers. So it’s nice to work in a place where I feel there’s a bigger purpose behind it, other than a job. You are their advocate, you encourage them, you try to hopefully help them move forward and succeed. I get to see a lot of these people early on before it happens to them and it’s kind of fun to have that kind of relationship with a lot of people.
Looking back on the past 20 years at ASCAP, when have you felt most fulfilled?
One of the most rewarding parts of what I do is trying to be helpful to people when they’re just starting out, especially. Many of them don’t have a publisher, manager or label yet. It’s exciting when you see someone you think is going to be awesome and it could happen in a year, in five years or it never will.
When I met Carly Pearce, she could have been 18 years old. She was fairly new to Nashville. I like the fact that she continued. She’s had ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back all these years, but it’s that five or ten year old overnight success when things finally start to fall into place. She did whatever it took to make it happen.
I met Kelsea Ballerini when she was 15. Matt Ramsay from Old Dominion was working in town, trying to make it for many years before things started to happen. This is true for most people. For me, it’s great when I see people I know have worked for it and haven’t given up when it doesn’t come easily.
Who have been some of your mentors over the years?
Connie Bradley was a great mentor, obviously, with my role where I am now. My current boss John Titta has been great. ralph murphy really took me under his wing when I came to ASCAP. Phil Vassar – he didn’t have to ask me to go out on the road and play with him when it happened.
Arista days were really special. It was great working with Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan. These two people have been friends throughout the process. As much as I missed seeing that time period fade away and the separation from the Arista family, what was truly rewarding was seeing the success of all the people who worked there.
If someone was describing you, what would you want them to say?
Respectfully honest. It’s business and sometimes you don’t always have the chance to give the answer that someone is looking for, but if you try to be honest with them and do it with respect, I think it’s important for everybody.
What are some of your favorite career moments?
Before it became CMA Fest, we used to have Fan Fare at the old Tennessee State Fairgrounds. It was basically the last event or show we did as Arista Nashville before the merger. We have a group photo with a group of our artists and most of our staff. There’s the grandstand full of people in the background of the stage, which is pretty cool. It was a bittersweet day, but at the same time, I think it’s easier to look back now as a wonderful time and a great group of people to share it with.
Another time was when Chris Stapleton was going to spend his first year at the Grammy’s as an artist. I took my wife, Julia, for the first time. We have to sit next to Chris and Morgan and he stood up to get his first and second Grammy awards. [When I was a kid]even thinking about going to the Grammys, let alone being a part of it or seeing someone’s career unfold like Chris’, would have blown my mind.
These are things you don’t think about when you’re in the middle, but it’s kind of fun when those Kodak moments happen here and there in life. It’s fun to hopefully be a little part of these people’s world. I’m happy to see all the good things they deserve happen to them.