My Music Row Story: ASCAP’s Mike Sistad
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.
Minnesota native and music industry executive Mike Sistad has worked on both the creative and business sides of the music business. As a musician, he has performed across most of North America, including stops at the Houston Rodeo and Calgary Stampede, as well as radio and TV performances including Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion and the Grand Ole Opry.
A Belmont University graduate, Sistad has worked with legendary Muscle Shoals producer/musician Barry Beckett; as an A&R executive for Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan with Arista Records Nashville; and as a band member for 2-time ASCAP Country Songwriter/Artist of the Year Phil Vassar.
In 2001, the late, legendary Connie Bradley enlisted Sistad to join the ASCAP Membership team. In his current role as VP of Nashville Membership, Sistad continues to work with all aspects of the music industry as it pertains to songwriters, artists and publishing companies. He has contributed to the success of Chris Stapleton, Kelsea Ballerini, Old Dominion, Brothers Osborne, Carly Pearce and many others. Sistad previously served as both a Board Governor and Chapter Advisor for the Nashville Chapter of the Recording Academy in addition to being an AIMP Nashville board member, CMA, ACM member and Leadership Music alumni.
MusicRow: I didn’t realize you were a musician before you got into the business. Tell me about your musical upbringing.
I have been doing music since as long as I can remember. My mom is the church organist and pianist at our little Lutheran church back home in Minnesota. She’s 87 years old and she’s still the church organist. So music has always been a part of my life, right from the beginning with performing and playing.
In high school, I ended up playing in a band on weekends with a bunch of buddies. My senior year, [the band competed in] The Country Showdown contest. It was in ’82, and our band ended up winning in Minnesota and representing Minnesota at the national contest here in Nashville. I was just about ready to graduate from high school and instead of just having fun playing—which it was—all the band guys thought if we took this a little more seriously, maybe we can actually do something with this.
The original band name was Bean Ball Barnett & 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 to us, but we soon had a following and didn’t think we should change the name! The Barn Boys became the abbreviated version. We were booked by the Good Music Agency (GMA) out of Minneapolis, Minnesota—which was a training ground for many of the booking agents that found their way to Nashville over the years.
How did you get to Belmont University?
I started college for a semester and quit to go be a full-time musician, every parent’s dream for their children. I [traveled with the band] full time for about six years. I started a family in the middle of that and decided I didn’t want to be traveling and gone all the time anymore. So I started to look at going back to school and Belmont was on the radar for me.
What was your first stop after graduation?
I interned with Barry Beckett, a very famous Muscle Shoals musician and producer here in town, for about a year. In my next internship, I went from Barry Beckett to Arista Records. It was very early on and really small at that point.
I went there as an intern. I thought, “I’ll go check out this record label and be disillusioned by the record industry.” As a musician, you think they’re the big, bad guys. But I ended up loving it. I didn’t know Tim [DuBois], but I knew he was a songwriter and he was running the office. It was a big deal to me that there was a musical person running the office. I ended up working my way into A&R, which was really the only thing I cared 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 was brave enough to invite me to go back out on the road as a musician again, so I did that. Connie Bradley had actually reached out to me too while I was still at Arista. She said, “I don’t have a job to offer you right now, but I’d love for you to consider it when the time comes. I’d like to call you if you’re interested.” I said, “Absolutely, I’d love to do that.”
Phil was just getting started. I was excited to go on the road and start playing with some of the band guys and remember 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 played. I played with him on that show. That’s where she officially asked me to join.
Now, more than 20 years later, you are VP of Nashville Membership at ASCAP. What are some things that you’ve enjoyed about transitioning into the business side?
I love being on the business side, but I’m still working with the people who are writing the songs, the people that are singing the songs and the people playing the songs. That’s where my heart is: the creative community, the people making the music. It’s fun to work at a place where we’re owned by our membership. ASCAP is a little different that way than the other PROs in that we’re actually owned by the writers and the publishers. So it’s nice to work someplace where I feel there’s a bigger purpose behind it, other than a job. You’re their advocate, you’re cheerleading for them, you’re trying to hopefully help them move forward and have success. I’m fortunate to get to see a lot of those folks early on before that happens for them and it’s pretty fun to have those kinds of relationships with a lot of people.
When you look back on the last 20 years at ASCAP, when have you felt most fulfilled?
One of the most rewarding parts of what I get to do is trying to be helpful for people when they’re in the beginning stages, especially. A lot of them don’t have a publisher, a manager, or a label deal yet. It’s exciting when you see somebody you believe is going to be great and it might happen a year from now, it might be five years from now, or it might not ever happen.
When I met Carly Pearce, she might have been 18. She was pretty new to Nashville. I love the fact that she just kept going. She had her ups and downs, two steps forward and one step back through all those years, but it’s that five-year or 10-year overnight success thing when things finally start falling into place. She was doing all the right work to get there.
I met Kelsea Ballerini when she was 15. Matt Ramsey from Old Dominion was around town working, trying to make it for a lot of years before things started happening. That’s true for most people. For me, it’s great when I see people that I know have been working for it and haven’t given up when it doesn’t happen easily.
Who have been some of your mentors over the years?
Connie Bradley was big mentor, obviously, with my role where I’m at 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 come out on the road and play with him when that happened.
The Arista days were really special. It was great to work with Tim DuBois and Mike Dungan. Those two people have been friends through the whole process. As much I missed seeing that time period go away and the Arista family split, what’s really been rewarding is to see the success of all the people that were working there.
If someone was describing you, what would you want them to say?
Respectfully honest. It is business and sometimes you don’t always have the chance to give the answer that someone’s looking for, but if you try to be honest with them and do it respectfully, I think that’s important for everybody.
What are some of your favorite career moments?
Before it became CMA Fest, we used to have Fan Fare down at the old Tennessee state fairgrounds. It was basically the last event or show that we did as Arista Nashville before the merger happened.We have a group picture with a bunch of our artists and most of our staff. It’s got the grandstand full of people in the background off the stage, which is pretty cool. It was a bittersweet day, but at the same time, I think it’s easier to look back on it now as a wonderful time and a wonderful bunch of people to share that with.
Another time was when Chris Stapleton was going have his first year going to the Grammy’s as an artist. I took my wife, Julie, for the first time. We got to sit by Chris and Morgane and he got up to get his first and second Grammy award. [When I was a kid], to think about even going to the Grammy Awards, let alone being a part of it or seeing somebody’s career go like Chris’ has, would have blown my mind.
Those are things you don’t think about when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s pretty fun when those Kodak moments happen in life here and there. It’s fun to hopefully be a small part of these people’s worlds. I’m glad to see all the good things happen for them that they deserve.