Interviewed by Michael Laskow

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 year—a 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 College—now 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 company mushroom.

Pretty much. 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 grown.

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 thing—maybe 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 for—whether it's pitching songs, or finding talent— and that is to be given the opportunity to prove yourself.

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 fold—people 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, TAXI—we 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 tips?

The thing I love about Nashville—and think this was a big attraction from the start for me—is 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.

Sometimes people 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 level—that'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 at it.

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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