Dallas-Based Crushed Stars Has Another Critically Acclaimed Album, But Is it Enough?
Courtesy of Todd Gautreau
Todd Gautreau of Crushed Stars wouldn't be a natural choice to star in an indie-rock reimagining of the sentimental 1989 Kevin Costner hit film, Field of Dreams. As Ray Kinsella, a failing farmer with daddy issues, Costner's character blindly followed a random, ghostly voice telling him that "If you build it, they will come." It all worked out for Kinsella in the end, but hey, that's the magic of the movies.
The main man behind Dallas-based dream-pop project Crushed Stars, Todd Gautreau, isn't a flighty artist who assumes that if he "records it, they will buy." It's quite the opposite. Gautreau, a 44-year-old graphic designer who also owns indie-label Simulacra Records and creates electronically based songs under the Sonogram moniker is, for good reason, a practical kind of fellow. Pragmatism isn't something one would imagine from the hazy, laconic tunes he produces with Jeff Ryan as Crushed Stars, but that juxtaposition only adds to the story's intrigue.
Farewell Young Lovers, the newest Crushed Stars record, following up the sublime 2012 In the Bright Rain, mixes a bit more sonic variety onto this album than in the past -- Gautreau says he felt this recording was "more spontaneous," and that "it came together more quickly" than past efforts -- but, being cognizant of what a Crushed Stars record needs to sound like, Gautreau doesn't shake things up so much as to separate this latest effort from the hazy, ethereal sonic that has become his signature over the course of the six stellar, previously-released albums under the Crushed Stars umbrella.
For the uninitiated, Gautreau, who grew up just outside of New Orleans and began teaching himself to play guitar when he was six, rarely performs live, let alone sets out on map-shredding tours. In Crushed Stars earliest days, as members of the Arena Rock Recording Company roster (which has also included The Album Leaf, The Life and Times and Hem), key gigs at CMJ and South by Southwest helped raise the project's profile, but such trudging hasn't been common for the past decade. On the surface, such a refusal to tour and subscribe to what he refers to as "conventional wisdom" to hopefully build a fan-base one night at a time seems oddly stubborn, but for Gautreau, it makes sense. Simple math and logistics help keep him at home, looking for other ways to spread his word.
"A lot of people say that touring builds a fan-base," explains Gautreau. "But I have a hard time accepting that. I'll go to shows for people that are bigger than Crushed Stars and there might be 30 people there. So that artist tours for two or three weeks, and maybe wins two hundred new fans, or you can put a video on YouTube and gain 11,000 fans over the course of a few weeks. It seems easier that way. Touring works for some, but I don't think it would work for me. To tour for a few weeks and play to a dozen people in most towns would be devastating for me."
Not only does Gautreau refuse to buy into the standard estimation of touring's value, but he's staunchly opposed to the thought that streaming services such as Spotify may help introduce an artist's work to new consumers that will spend money on their new discoveries. The combination of miniscule royalty payments and a low-cost subscription fee hasn't ever set right with him. In December of 2012, he told us that Spotify is a "legally sanctioned form of piracy."
While Gautreau has managed to land some checks from the licensing of his music (Whataburger used a Crushed Stars song in a television commercial last year, for example), he's all but given up on the thought that the latest generation of indie-music fans will ever understand that paying for an album is essential for a musician to continue creating the way he feels is best.
While Crushed Stars albums typically take three months to complete, it's not as though Gautreau holes up in a studio for 90 days, whiling away valuable studio time as if it's an unlimited resource. For Farewell , just as with all other Crushed Stars records, Gautreau played every instrument, except for drums, which Ryan, who also drums for Pleasant Grove and Baptist Generals, handled. The arsenal of instruments weren't lugged into producer Stuart Sikes' studio every day, either. Gautreau handed an almost complete album to Sikes after he recorded it in his north Dallas home studio using Pro-Tools. Using only one day in studio for Ryan to lay down his drums and another couple of days for Sikes to mix the album helped Gautreau, again, practice fiscal prudence. Such concerns may not be very punk-rock, but having a sustainable foundation to release future records is an important one for any truly indie artist.
While the pile of critical acclaim grows with each Crushed Stars album -- Farewell has already received love from Rolling Stone, CMJ and American Songwriter to name a prominent few -- gold records haven't accompanied the glowing reviews. At this point, hosannas, while nice, can't be used to pay for a record's promotion. This incongruent trend has Gautreau pondering whether he has any Crushed Stars records left in him.
"This could be the last Crushed Stars record," he says. "It depends on how it's received. There are so many things that I want to do, and that I'm going to do, that maybe I'll put Crushed Stars on hold. It's frustrating to keep putting out records and they don't do well [financially], and it's been the same result each time."
For all of Gautreau's well-meaning, strategically-minded philosophies on the monetary realities of a musician in the digital age, he does partially give-in to the fuzzy nooks and crannies that can't be defined or predicted, yet might help keep an artist active without limitations.
Even as thoughts of sending his Crushed Stars packing, there remains a (tiny) hopeful bit of Ray Kinsella in Gautreau, after all. Of course, Crushed Stars wants to move musically forward, not play catch with apparitions.
"You can't create buzz by yourself, but you can keep making records, hoping it will eventually work."
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