GTCC band Mightier Than Me releases record shaped by the school’s entertainment technology program
Wes Frank Norman hasn’t always gotten the best advice about being a musician. As a teenager, after approaching an older gentleman who he knew played some guitar, the older player asked: “Do you have any weed or liquor?” To which Norman said “No.” And which the older guy answered with: “Well, come back when you do.” Teacher-student relationships aren’t what they used to be. Without getting too into that little adventure, it all turned out okay. Norman learned to play guitar. And, now 31, as a student in Guilford Technical Community College’s entertainment technology program, he has connected with some more helpful guidance on pursuing a career in music, and he’s met a group of fellow musicians on the same track. Norman plays guitar in Mightier Than Me, a band that was formed by students in the program. The band is releasing an EP on Dec. 2, with a concert at the school’s High Point campus on the same day.
Some bands are formed from circles of like-minded friends, some are formed by a shared interest in a certain style, others take shape when players connect online seeking to fill spots for a new project. Mightier Than Me started, basically, because four of the five players were taking an ensemble class at GTCC, where students audition and usually rehearse cover tunes, culminating in an end-of-semester performance.
“Without the school, we really wouldn’t have ever been a band,” says Norman. “We probably wouldn’t have met each other.”
The band coalesced, in part, because one of the ensemble members, singer Randy Williams, rather than suggesting a cover song by one of his favorite bands, offered up an original tune that he’d written for the class to perform. That caught people’s attention. Bassist Robert Seawell was part of that initial core group. There were a few personnel changes. Drummer Charlie Fuson, who was the sole non-GTCC member, had played music with Norman for years, and so he signed on with the project as well. One keyboard player left the area, and keyboardist/vocalist Sarah Barker joined the band. The band has existed for a year basically.
Most new bands stumble through learning the rudiments of the music business. Booking shows, making recordings, marketing yourself, selling merch, dealing with live sound and lights, handling legal questions about songwriting and copyright issues — none of these skills are necessarily intuitive, and lots of talented musicians have had their careers hobbled by a faulty grasp of the practical side of the business. The advent of streaming music services has further complicated the music business, with many artists struggling to piece together an income from the fractional payments given out by companies like Spotify and Pandora. It’s not hard to find musicians who are very pessimistic about the state of the music industry. But Norman and his peers have been studying the mechanics of the business. They’ve worked with industry insiders like Thomas Johnson, who chairs the creative and performing arts department and directs the entertainment technology program at GTCC. Johnson worked closely with the band, producing their recording, helping to pair other students interested in aspects like sound engineering, music business management and lighting, with Mightier Than Me so that the students could all benefit from each other’s growing knowledge of their chosen field.
“We’ve tried to morph ourselves into being more of a community where the students/artists can go and meet like-minded people, where everyone can come in and do something cool,” says Johnson.
For Norman and Mightier Than Me, pursuing a music career in the 21st century is markedly different from the dreams of stardom that may have motivated previous generations of aspiring musicians.
“Recording your album and throwing it out there and hoping a major label picks it up and you’re going to be a rock star, that isn’t going to happen anymore,” says Norman. “What they teach at school is the artist aspect of it. You can do this yourself and make a living from it, without major label support.”
That means learning how to register your songs with ASCAP, BMI or other performance-rights organizations that keep tabs on royalties for songs that get played on the radio or performed or broadcast in other contexts. It’s an arcane and somewhat labor-intensive end of the business, usually the work of an entertainment lawyer or a management team, submitting paperwork about setlists and venue names, etc., but royalties, which are often miniscule, can add up to significant sums if one’s songs get played hundreds or thousands of times.
Norman says that because of his and the band’s work keeping that end of the business in order, which they learned at GTCC, he receives quarterly royalty checks of a couple hundred dollars as a songwriter. It’s not enough to survive on, but it helps.
Still, all the business smarts in the world won’t really help if you don’t have songs that connect with people. Mightier Than Me sound very much like a band steeped in the radio hits of the ‘90s — R.E.M., Everclear, the Gin Blossoms, Green Day, etc. It’s not retro, but it’s classic guitar rock, a little sensitivity balanced with a little muscle. You can hear the care and attention given to the recording, with layered vocal harmonies and production touches. At a time when most bands would be hoping to crank out a demo recording from their practice space, Mightier Than Me got to make a studio album, with guidance from a pro like Johnson, who’s worked with artists like Porno For Pyros, Mike Watt and Rancid.
For Norman, this experience has given him optimism about the possibility of surviving in the field of music. The guitarist describes his formative experience as a teenager in Asheboro, as “rednecks drinking moonshine and playing Lynyrd Skynyrd.” Playing in bands through his teens and twenties was fun, but the money wasn’t really coming.
“Two years ago I was homeless,” he says. “I lived in a shed.”
Actively making songs, making records, and pursuing a clear goal of promoting an album through social media and live shows is something that seems viable to Norman. If other musicians are talking about the death of the business, Norman is more of an optimistic cheerleader.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from GTCC is that the music industry is not dying,” says Norman, “it’s being reborn.”
Wanna go? Mightier Than Me play Friday, Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. at the GTCC Center for Creative and Performing Art Theater, 901 S Main St. High Point, ($5 – $15), highpointtheatre.com/EventsGTCC.asp