Mark Spence, the frontman of Australia’s own Royal Chant, is feeling chatty. The musician has just released his band’s fourth full-length studio album, Pride & Poverty, and, ahead of a national tour that will see them make both regional and suburban stops, Spence is pondering the changes to the way independent music is distributed, as he has seen over his career.
“Our very first record, that was out in all the stores. It got some hard copy sales. I’d go into JB Hi Fi and go like, ‘Oh, wow, you’ve actually got our CD here.’ But, for us, that’s long gone now. Basically, we just gave up on all that stuff,” Spence says.
It’s no secret that the musical landscape is changing irrevocably, moving towards digital sales and streaming. And while we’ll have to wait until March to get the 2017 ARIA wholesale figures, the 2016 figures released last year showed digital sales representing around 70 per cent of the market, with streaming taking the lion’s share of that figure.
“We stopped doing hard copies on our last record. We’re committed now to only doing digital stuff, sad to say. We did do a little vinyl run on our last single but it was just killing us monetarily to keep trying to put out hard copies. So, we’ve put all our eggs in the digital basket; now even more so in the streaming basket.”
Pride & Poverty will be available on all the usual digital platforms, including Spotify, Soundcloud, and Bandcamp. But Spence’s experience tells him that digital downloads are lagging, and he expects most of the listening revenue to be generated in digital streaming.
“Even when we did have hard copies, when we were trying to sell them at gigs I’d wind up getting pretty loose and just giving that stuff away. I’m a terrible salesman. But it’s a real minority of people who come up to us at shows and ask us if we have CDs for sale. I probably haven’t heard that in over a year.”
Outside the realm of record sales, Royal Chant maintain a fairly constant live show schedule. Spence attributes the regularity of shows to his desire to constantly be working, and the band books away gigs to fit around their work life, filling up as many weekends as possible – the frontman himself works as a music teacher and drumline leader for high schools in Port Macquarie.
“As far as the amount of travel we do, I’d say we’re probably punching about our weight. That, or just being stupidly ambitious in going lots of places. We do like to tour a lot and we have at least a somewhat spread-out fan base,” he says. “I’m not sure how much good it’s doing us, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. Which, at this point in the game, is pretty much all we’re aiming for.”
Royal Chant has had a long life by local standards – they’ve been together for 13 years and subject to numerous lineup changes, which have left Spence as the sole original member. But he feels the band’s finally hitting its stride now: he lists Pride & Poverty as his favourite record, and not just because he’s fulfilling the musician’s obligation of always considering their latest release their finest. He believes communication in the band is strong, and they’re able to have frank discussions about their songs.
“In previous incarnations of the band, communications would be at an all-time low. I’d be too sheepish to say anything if I didn’t like what was happening with the songs. I just learned to keep my thoughts to myself and not ruffle any feathers. And, you know, you wind up with some resentment, and things like that. Whereas this recording process was fairly open and honest.”
Spence says the band spent their December down-time going back into the studio to record new songs and do some last-minute touch-ups to Pride & Poverty, work designed to keep them all occupied while on a gigging break. “I don’t function very well with the thought of a break. You’re either working or you’re not. Once we finished with the studio I finally learned to just relax; maybe do a bit of PR for the album. You know, just get ready and do some rehearsals at a fairly leisurely pace.”
Spence says Pride & Poverty has come at a time when he feels more able to talk about the formation of his music. He says, in the past, questions about influences and songwriting just went over his head; he didn’t feel he knew how to answer them properly. But practice over the years has helped him hone his answers to media questions.
The themes are a happy accident, or at least an unconscious effort.
“With the album, if there’s any underlying concept that was all ex post facto. At the time, I was just writing a song, then another song. We were actually supposed to have twelve songs on the album but it just wasn’t fitting right. Then Pride & Poverty came to me as an album title and once I had that we sort of created a narrative to follow. So the themes are a happy accident, or at least an unconscious effort.”
As far as personal favourites, Spence points to the world-weary love anthem ‘Shooting Sparrows’, and folky acoustic jam ‘Cargo Cults’, over the more traditional rock tunes in the album. “Both of those I really have an affection for. I’ve had to make the least amount of compromises in this one. There’s nothing that I’m hearing that I would want to do differently.”
Pride and Poverty is out now through MGM Distribution.