by The Guitar has 6 strings. If 6 objects are placed side by side, then rearranged one at a time so that they are always in a new position and relationship to each other, it will require 720 moves to complete the cycle. In other words, the number of distinct linear arrangements of six is 720.
Now, when this arithmetic form is applied to 12 consecutive tones of the chromatic scale the number of moves required in order to complete the cycle is: 479,001,6000. The possible combinations of 12 when multiplied by 720 totals: 344,881,152,000. That’s in excess of 344 billion combinations.1
The obstacles to reach “virtuoso” status on the guitar is enormous. Mike Rayburn is a Carnegie Hall Headliner. He is at the top of the guitar performance pyramid. Still, to combine, comedy and motivational speaking and package it into a sought after Keynote talk, completely boggles the mind, Yet that is what Mike Rayburn has done.
I have been following Mike’s career from a far for years. I never had the courage to contact him. So when Mike responded my email for an interview, I was ecstatic!
Yes, Mike travels the globe using guitar and comedy to share his insights on personal development and human potential. But there is another side, which I now know. Mike is passionate about dispelling the myth of the “starving artist”. Mike believes the artist has skills which the business world desperately needs. You only have to fine tune your act to the audience who is prepared to write a check. This has personal meaning to me, because everything I know about financial advice, I learned from the guitar. (Stay tuned for future post by the same name.
Adam Smith, the author of the Wealth of Nations, and is considered his magnum opus and the first modern work of economics, pointed out two centuries ago, there is a set of rules based on the hard-coupled relationship between scarcity and value in the physical world. The world’s greatest song has no value to anyone but me as long as it remains in my head. Only when a lot of people have heard and enjoyed it does it start to accumulate value, and even then not so much for itself but for me as its source. In this, music is more like a service, something that is continuously provided, rather than an object of commerce. The more people who become aware of the quality of that service, the more that can be economically derived from providing real-time access to its provision.2
Yet this is exactly what Mike did. He broke the talent code. He figured out a way to leverage his enormous talents while sharing it with a global audience; while many artists have traveled this path, few artists have been able to achieve it.
1-Tell me about Mike Rayburn before he became the international star he is today?
First of all I appreciate the kind words (sarcasm?) but I doubt I’d be considered an international “star.” I do perform worldwide for amazing audiences with corporations and associations, but don’t have a big name. That said, I don’t see career growth as a tiered thing, for me there’s not an “I’ve arrived, I’m a star” level. It’s all a process, or a continuum, with milestones along the way. So years ago I did what I do now, just not as well. Years from now I hope I do it better than now. I’ve always been passionate in pursuit of what I love to do – guitar, comedy and speaking – so the difference is I’m better now. The biggest change was when, in the late 90’s Brian Tracy asked if I had resolved to be the best, meaning my personal best. I realized I had been coasting because things were working. I made the decision to do everything possible to keep improving every aspect of my career (and life). That decision changed everything. Before that I did enough to make things work. Now I do everything possible to make it not just work, but be my personal best. Also, what has truly increased from back then is my creativity. I’m writing, practicing and passionate about it now more than ever before! I’m far more prolific because I’m less afraid to make mistakes or look stupid. That is the key to creativity.
2- Why did you feel the need to broaden your audience?
Again, I’m always growing. I want to reach and influence people for the better, I really do. In fact, last year I learned the opening ten minutes of my keynote in Spanish. I’m speak Spanish conversationally, but had the first ten minutes translated correctly. I did that for a group which was all business people from Mexico. Also, you can never remain stagnant. I believe I have to keep growing my audience, my business, my writing, my playing… everything. Or I risk becoming irrelevant.
3- What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
Opening the door to my own creativity has been the biggest personal obstacle. Being willing to try more things on stage has been a big deal. On the business side, a few years ago my (now former) agent stole and un-Godly amount of money from me and I had to almost completely rebuild my career.
Also, anytime you make a big change you get obstacles. Back in the year 2000/2001 I chose to leave the college market and become a speaker with a guitar. Now, I left on top; I was voted “America’s Campus Entertainer of the Year” in 1998, 1999, and 2001… and left. I realized to become something greater you quite often must let go of something good. It was scary at first, but it has paid off beyond my wildest imagination. It’s important to make changes preemptively, or the world will make them for you and the world is not usually nice about it.
4- Did you ever think that you were becoming less of an “Artist”?
Never! I’m more of an artist now than I ever was. The question is, what is my art form? There is an art to playing guitar, writing a song, writing books, doing comedy, and to speaking. There is however a far less heralded art form which is my specialty, it’s what I do naturally and love immeasurably: Entertaining an audience. Connecting and taking them somewhere. However I do it – guitar, comedy, songs, message, – that is my most precious art form and that has served me quite well.
I remember, when I began playing the college market, while I did have original songs, people wanted to hear cover songs more than mine So that’s what I played, throwing in my songs once in a while. I would overhear some of the singer-songwriter, “Folk-nazi” types who “only do original music” (spoken with nose pointed stiffly upward), scoff at and dismiss me as an artist saying, “Oh, he does cover songs, he does funny songs,” basically impugning me as less than an artist. I thought, “Fine. You do your ten dates per year, I’ll do my 150 and we’ll see who’s happier. And we’ll see who’s still doing it ten years from now.” Well, I don’t know if they’re happier now in their computer jobs and selling real estate, but I’m feeling great! And it’s been 28 years since I first heard that and I have the best, most creative career on the planet. Oh, and Sony signed me as a staff songwriter in Nashville so maybe I had artistic integrity after all, eh?
5- What advice would you give a newly minted musician with a degree in music performance?
Know what you want to do and go do it. Don’t spend your life floating here and there, choose a direction and go with it. And, if you’re going to make money at it, guess what? It’s a business; treat it like one. Embrace and learn it as a business. There’s nothing un-artistic about making a living with your art. Most artists will never be huge stars. Therefore, the key to staying in this for a long time is remaining financially stable. Learn about money and how to manage it. That’s just personal integrity.
Now, it is absolutely valid to find another job you like, maybe not your life purpose, but one that pays your bills, to do and allow your art to be unaffected by having to produce a bottom line with it. Charles Ives, the first great American composer was a millionaire insurance professional and entrepreneur. He composed in his spare time and created works which at the time went largely unnoticed. Because he didn’t have to make money with his composition, he ended up being 20 years ahead of his time. His music was so unusual it would not have made a living for him at first. I have a friend named Robin Crow who was trying to be noticed in the 80’s Christian music scene. There was a tour of major Christian artists and Robin wanted to be on it. They had turned him down. Well, turns out on just a practical side, the tour needed a trailer to carry equipment. Robin had one. he offered it to them rent-free if he could open for the tour. They accepted. Now, was it cool? Maybe not. But it worked and Robin was playing for many thousands of people on a big tour! That same spirit has kept Robin performing to this day, while others on that tour have long since faded.
Just be relentless in finding a way to do exactly what you want to with your music, whether that’s pushing boundaries and out of the norm, mainstream, or playing weddings. Just make it happen however you have to.
6-In 2000, you transitioned from a cover artist to a speaker. Seems like a big leap of faith. How did that come about? Why the change? Did you have any mentors?
First of all, I was long past being a cover artist at that point. That ended by the early 90’s. I evolved from doing cover tunes to doing comedy and wild guitar music: funny originals, parodies, standup, Dan Fogelberg sings AC/DC, and crazy instrumentals. I was a staff songwriter for Sony and doing my thing. But I’m also a nerd when it comes to personal development. It’s always intrigued me… you have two people of equal talent, education and opportunity, one rises to the top, the other never gets it together. So I would do a very short message at the end of my programs. A friend heard me at Zanie’s Comedy Showplace and said, “Mike, you’re clean, funny and you have a message. You’re a speaker and you don’t even know it.” I said, “What’s a speaker? You mean like a motivational speaker?” She said, “Yes.” I said, “No.” It took me three years to listen to her. Then I joined the National Speakers Association and that was it. I’d found my tribe. I knew I’d be able to do something very different… a keynote about creativity, innovation and peak performance, but use guitar and comedy as the vehicle, rather than powerpoint and statistics.
Yes, I had mentors… Jana Stanfield, Dan Burrus, Patricia Fripp (who’s brother, Robert Fripp I studied guitar with), and later Bert Decker, Jack Canfield, and Captain Charlie Plumb. All are truly amazing people.
And yes, it was a HUGE leap of faith. I simultaneously had an agent who totally dropped the ball on booking my schedule so when I started delivering keynotes I had no choice but to succeed… there was no plan B. But it takes a leap of faith to grow exponentially. Over the next few years my income quintupled because I hit a niche, had a message and delivery that people needed.
Hope that helps.
7- My add on- One of Mike’s favorite quotes–“To play a wrong note is insignificant; to play without passion is inexcusable.” -Ludwig von Beethoven
JB- On behalf of the business and artist community. Thanks Mike!
1-Harmonic Mechanisms for Guitar Volume One. George Van Epps,
2-Everything I know about business, I learned from the Grateful Dead. Barry Barnes and John Perry Barlow