Did you grow up loving country music or was it an acquired taste?
I grew up loving country music. I listened to it all the time. I loved
music, period. My parents listened to country music all the time, so I
was definitely exposed to it at a young age. I loved the Don Williams
and the Merle Haggards. It's funny how one of those old songs will come
on the radio now and you still remember all of the words to it. You haven't
heard it for years, but it's still taking up a brain cell some place inside.
Did you also like the Beatles or any other pop bands?
Yeah, I guess the rock era that I came up through was populated with bands
like Foreigner, AC/DC and the Police. I used to play Beatles stuff in
a cover band for awhile. I liked a variety of things, but most of the
time I listened to country music. Because of the instruments I was learning
to play for myself, I think that's kind of what I gravitated toward.
How did you end up in Nashville?
The first trip I took to Nashville was in 1982. I was in a band at the
time, and we entered the Wrangler band contest that yeara national competition
thing. The group ended up winning for Minnesota. We won a trip to Nashville
and performed at the Grand Old Opry for the contest. I was an eighteen
year old kid still in high school. I think that was the point when I decided
that if I took music a little more seriously, I could do something with
it. I had several acquaintances that I knew from over the years that had
kind of put a bug in my ear about Belmont Collegenow Belmont University.
They had a music business program. Eventually, that became my excuse to
move to Nashville. I moved my wife and kids down here. I came back to
finish my college degree that I had started before. I thought that would
give me a couple of years of working towards something while I tried to
figure out if there was something for me to do in Nashville.
I interned with
Barry Beckett (big-time producer-Ed.) my junior year. He's a great man
and obviously very talented. Then I came here to Arista in the summer
of 1991 and interned during my senior year. I loved it. It was still kind
of a "little company that could." There were approximately fifteen people
on staff at that time. I think Alan Jackson's first record was platinum,
and we were just starting the second record. I think that was also the
year we started working with Brooks & Dunn, Pam Tillis and Diamond Rio.
We had several things that just started hitting, so everyone was running
around like chickens with their heads cut off trying to just keep up with
things. Things were very small, but I knew Tim DuBois' (President of Arista,
Nashville) background professionally, and that was really why I wanted
to come to this company. I'm still here for some reason, and they keep
paying me. I love what I'm doing. It must have been great to watch this
I was here pretty early on in our company history. There have been a lot
of changes, and I've seen a lot of transitions within the company as far
as the growth that comes with success. It's great to be a part of that.
I think we've tried to keep that small company mentality even though we've
Do you consciously make an effort to do that?
I feel we do. I think those personalities and relationships that we had
when we started together have created a strong loyalty within this company.
I think Tim's leadership and direction has really been strong support
and has brought us to this point. I think that some of that is reflected
in both the success of the artists and also by the fact that there are
a lot of people who are still here from those early years. They start
here and they keep growing within the company. The company has been really
good about allowing people to grow, hopefully within our company rather
than necessarily having to leave to find future steps for them to take.
Arista has always had an extremely good reputation within the industry.
What about Arista makes it so special? What is the mindset of this company
that makes it so cool?
I think that comes from Clive Davis, and trickles down. The company has
been successful, not only in the talent and the great success the company
has had in picking those artists, but I think also in picking people that
work within the company. I think recognizing talent within the company
and allowing them to do their jobs the best they can is a very attractive
quality. Obviously, Clive has a long history of a success in New York.
He picked Tim DuBois to head Arista Nashville and has pretty much given
him the reins to do what he needs to do here in this market. It's worked
great. There is always a dose of luck and all of those other things that
go along with success, but I think you still have to position yourself
for those moments of luck to happen. In choosing people to run their departments,
Tim has, for the most part, not necessarily always picked the people who
had the resume or the piece of paper. He recognizes that the piece of
paper may not always mean they are as qualified for this job as someone
who had the personal feelings or some intangible thingmaybe they have
a glint in their eye, and they really believe in something, and their
heart's in the right place. Sometimes that's almost worth more than the
resume. They've been great about giving people opportunities to either
sink or swim. That's all anybody can really hope forwhether it's pitching
songs, or finding talent and that is to be given the opportunity to
So what happens if you sink?
I think that that's part of the responsibility of not putting someone
in a position to fail either. I think you have to give opportunities to
people when you feel they are prepared to do handle the task. You have
to give them a fair chance to succeed. Obviously that doesn't always work
out, but the opportunity is there if the moment is right.
Do you wake up and pinch yourself sometimes?
Yeah, I think you get so busy with the regular routine that you kind of
forget sometimes about how great it is to be part of a company like this.
Obviously this a very glamorous, outside-looking-in kind of job to have.
There is a lot of work involved with it. It's not all fun and games. But
it's one of the coolest jobs I could wish on anybody. It's great when
I get home sometimes and get to sit for a few minutes and think about
it. I'm getting paid for my opinion at Arista Records in Nashville! I
work with some of the coolest artists around. Artists that I would be
a fan of even if I wasn't here. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do
something you really enjoy, and to be able to contribute to the success
of the company and get paid for it in the process. There's not a whole
lot else you can ask for.
Describe a typical day in the life of Mike Sistad.
Most of my day is spent dealing with the songwriters and the publishing
community and the song pluggers in town. I'm not a huge fan of the phone,
but it's a major part of what I do. Most of my time is spent listening
and trying to find songs for the artists that we have on the label.
Some of that
time also involves looking for new artists. The cool thing that I've always
loved about our company is I think we're pretty careful about trying to
keep our roster at a smaller size and trying to sign things that we really
feel good about. Arista New York is a great example of that, along with
Arista Nashville. I don't think we as a company have ever necessarily
cared to be the biggest record company. I think it has been more important
to be the best record company. I think when you look at the percentage
of successes for the amount of people on the roster, we really do a great
job at that. The success of the artists that we started out with that
still continue, such as Alan Jackson and Brooks & Dunn, allow us the chance
hopefully to find some new artists to add to the foldpeople that we
think can still be of that same caliber, like Shannon Brown, a new female
artist on our label.
How did Shannon get to Arista?
Shannon actually had a deal in the works for one of the record companies
in town for a while. But it wasn't gelling exactly the way everyone hoped
it would. Under those circumstances, I think that she had asked if she
could be allowed to shop her deal around town before they finalized it.
They said that if she wanted some time to do that, they would be fine
with that. If she didn't find something and still wanted to be there under
their roof, they would still do the deal with her. But we ended up getting
her over here.
How do you find artists? I know it is somewhat different in Nashville
than in New York and Los Angeles. How often do you go out looking for
artists? Do you actually go out looking for artists, or do they come in
through producers and publishers?
I think to some extent it's all of the above. We accept artist packages
on a limited basis, usually from somebody that we know. It can be through
booking agency people, management companies, TAXIwe keep our ears to
the ground. We have producers who bring projects to us. We also go out
and look for artists. We find them through writers and through the publishing
companies. It's kind of all the little feelers that you put out there
to get exposure, and maybe somebody who is excited about something will
give us a call and get us to take a listen to it. Any of those connections
that we have access to, and have some kind of personal relationship with,
have the potential to give us a serious recommendation. In the end, we
still have to decide if it's for us or not. Unfortunately we can't sign
everything. Sometimes we actually see artists and acts that we believe
will get signed somewhere in town, and that's not reason enough for us
to sign them. If we don't feel like we're in a position to really follow
through on it, then it's not advantageous for either party if we sign
them. We just have to let it go.
What is the best advice you would give to an aspiring country artist?
I've seen a few people that have come to town that are very starry-eyed,
and aren't very aware of the business end of things. Unfortunately, some
people want to succeed so badly that they'll let common sense go out the
door, and they'll make business decisions that under normal circumstances
they might not make. I try to warn people that a bad record deal can be
worse than no deal at all.
Any advice for an aspiring country songwriter? What are some writing
The thing I love about Nashvilleand think this was a big attraction
from the start for meis that it's a songwriters' town. It's great to
be a part of that community and learn. I think the songwriters who come
here and are really serious about it, get so much support from the songwriting
community. The flipside of that is that sometimes you get caught in the
formula that some people are scared of, where everyone is writing the
same radio formula type songs. That uniqueness of writing from wherever
you are in the country might get lost, because all of a sudden you are
piled together with everybody else who are all trying to get radio success.
When you say it may not be a good thing to get caught up in the formula,
I guess you're saying don't be afraid to be a little daring and go a little
bit left of center. Some people might construe that as an open door to
the land of "anything goes."
I'm not recommending that. I think there is a give and take on that. I
don't think there is any one right way of writing a great song. You get
structures and things you can learn from technical books about writing
songs. All that is great. For me, the only way I can put it is it's like
learning to play an instrument. You have to learn the technical stuff
first. You have to learn to walk before you can run, and likewise with
songwriting. At some point you will become good enough at the basic craft,
that when the inspiration comes, you can put something on paper and make
it work in a way that is hopefully commercially acceptable and also something
that everyone would love to buy and own.
think those are two different things. I'm trying to find things that are
hopefully both of those things. There are always those universal themes
that everyone is trying to write about, but to say it in a different way,
or in a very visual way, or a very conversational way in a song that everyone
can relate to on a personal levelthat's the miraculous thing that everyone
is trying to do. You have to follow through on your inspiration and maybe
write a hundred songs to get that one that is special. You've got to work
What do you want to do with your career? Where will you be five years
or ten years from now?
I don't have a definite answer. I know people say you should write down
your goals, but I've never allowed myself to be pigeonholed into something
specifically like "This is what I need to be doing five years from now
or else I won't attain my goals and I won't be successful." For me personally,
it has always been trying to do something that I love and that I enjoy.
I've been very fortunate that for most of my life I have made a living
doing something with music. I played with a band for five and a half years
and made a good living doing that. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Obviously, now I'm doing A&R at a major record company. I can't honestly
tell you that's what I came to Nashville to do. I never planned that that
was the end to the means when I came to town. I'm very happy doing what
I'm doing as long as I have something to add to the picture that makes
sense for our artists and for the company. There is still part of me that
thinks maybe someday I'll be more on the publishing side. Maybe I will
be, I don't know. Maybe someday I'll get more into production. I was able
to do that with the band I played with a little bit and loved being in
the studio. I don't get to do as much of that right now as I wish I could,
but I'm hoping that somewhere down the line it might be something that
I can at least try and see if it's what I want to do or not. Hopefully
I'll be doing something still with music, and hopefully it will be something
I'm still enjoying and paying the bills with. Whether that's A&R at Arista
Records or something else five years from now, I can't honestly tell you,
but hopefully I'll be doing a good job here for a while yet to come.
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