NEW ORLEANS — Like a lot of out-of-towners who came to New Orleans in the years after the levees failed, Chris Joseph found that the singers John Boutte and Paul Sanchez spoke to the city's post-Katrina trauma better than almost any other artists.
Like his fellow visitors, Joseph felt frustrated that he couldn't buy a CD of the cathartic songs the duo was singing in the city's nightclubs -- numbers such as the infectious original "Good Neighbor" or the radical rearrangement of Paul Simon's "An American Tune" as part folk confessional and part gospel hymn.
Unlike the others, though, Joseph did something about it.
Joseph, a Santa Monica resident who prepares environmental impact statements for a living, was a member of the Threadheads, a group that already had proved that music fans could be proactive. The Threadheads met in the chat room on www.nojazzfest.com, but they evolved into an organization that put on shows at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.
Beginning in 2005, the annual Threadheads Party booked Louisiana bands for a backyard soiree, and post-Katrina, the party morphed into a fundraiser for the New Orleans Musicians Clinic. It was after Boutte and Sanchez's set at the 2007 party that Joseph approached Sanchez and asked when the duo was going to release an album.
"It was an innocent question," says Joseph today. "Paul said, 'We would if we had the money.' This light bulb went off in my head, and I said, 'How much would it take?' I expected him to say $100,000, but when he said $10,000, I told him, 'I could raise that.' I knew all the Threadheads had been touched by the show, and I figured if they had enough money to go to Jazz Fest, which is not a cheap vacation, they would kick in some money for this."
The concept was simple: Fans usually pay for records after they've been made by purchasing them in stores or online. But if the fans put in the money upfront, they could make sure that the records they wanted to hear got made.
Joseph, 52, sent out an appeal to the Threadheads' e-mail list and before long he had raised $12,000. He contacted Sanchez and said he was sending a check to finance the next record. All he asked in return was that the money be repaid within a year of the album's release and that the 10% interest be paid as a donation to the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.
"Everything's a gentleman's agreement," Joseph emphasized. "We don't sign any contracts, we don't make any artistic decisions, we don't own the masters. It's fun, because musicians usually don't work with people like us. We're raising money for a good cause, and we're bringing records into the world that might not otherwise exist. Other than raising my children, this is the most gratifying thing I've ever done."
"He doesn't really know the music business," Sanchez marvels, "so he does the right thing. He hasn't learned the industry standard, so he treats artists with respect. We kept waiting to see what the catch was, but there was no catch. Musicians are so used to being insulted by the industry that when we encounter this kind of trust, it's amazing."
That initial investment of $12,000 bankrolled Boutte's 2008 album "Good Neighbor" and a good chunk of Sanchez's 2008 disc, "Exit to Mystery Street." The two musicians delivered their last repayment check to Joseph on Tuesday.
The model proved so effective that the nonprofit Threadhead Records was born, with Joseph giving himself the job title of "head honcho." The seed money provided by the label has led to 2008-2009 albums by jazz-gospel trombonist Glen David Andrews, jazz-hip-hop trumpeter Shamarr Allen, jazz-rock singer-guitarist Alex McMurray and the brass band the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, plus the first disc credited to Boutte and Sanchez as a duo, "Stew Called New Orleans."
Coming later this year are new albums from Susan Cowsill and Marc Stone. These albums are available at Amazon .com, iTunes.com and Thread headrecords.com.
This year's Threadheads Party was held Tuesday in the Marigny neighborhood in New Orleans. It was one of the city's wonderful backyards -- sealed off from the outside by a high hedge studded with morning-glory and magnolia blossoms.
On the back lawn, beer, crawfish and jambalaya were being served, and on the temporary stage Boutte and Sanchez were sitting in folding chairs, backed by some of the city's finest jazzmen, playing the songs from their recent Threadhead releases.
On "An American Tune," however, they stripped it down to just Sanchez's acoustic-guitar picking and Boutte's supple tenor. When the latter added his hometown lilt to the lines, "I don't know a soul that's not been battered; I don't have a friend who feels at ease," the echoes of the city's flooded homes and wandering refugees was unmistakable.