Why It's So Expensive for Canadian Musicians to Cross the Border
Canadian musicians who tour America need to pay to play, and some have tried to get creative in their crossings.
Photo via Wallace Lake
With Canadian artists occupying the top four spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 for the first time ever, it may seem like the Canadian invasion of the American music market is well underway. But while artists like Drake and The Weeknd have managed to break out of Canada and take over the American pop charts, the passage across the border isn’t as smooth as they make it seem. The US music market is the biggest in the world, and with 75% of Canadians living within 100 miles of the border, that market is tantalizingly close for most Canadian musicians in an industry where opportunities are hard to come by. For most Canadians, visiting the US is a matter of routine. For American touring musicians, entering Canada follows more or less that same routine. But for many Canadian musicians, the border presents a significant logistical and financial barrier that can stunt their careers before they’ve really gotten started. This barrier has even led some to question the impactfulness of the investments made by the national and provincial governments to develop the Canadian music industry.
For artists at the beginning of their careers, establishing a presence in the States is a vital early step. Adam “Bix” Berger, who manages Canadian bands PUP and Alvvays, says it’s “crucial to play outside of Canada as early on as possible if your goal is to get anywhere,” and that finding a way to get a band to New York is one of his first priorities when he starts working with them. Unfortunately, at this point in an artist’s development, when they are trying to attract labels and booking agents, they’re unlikely to be finding big pay days on the road, and getting into the US legally isn’t cheap. To play even a single paid date in the US, even a $100 DIY show in a basement, work visas are required. And for artists who do not fit into the category of “an artist of International Renown,” the only available visas is the P-2.
A P-2 costs $325 USD (about $435 CAD) which may seem reasonable, but in order to apply for these visas an artist needs to work with a recognized petitioner—which generally means they have to become a member of the Canadian musician’s union. This union is called the CFM, and in Toronto it costs $255 in annual fees (prices vary from city to city), $160 in local initiation fees, $65 in federal initiation fees, and a $100 processing fee—plus an additional $20 per member. So for a four member Toronto-based band to go on a tour of the US, the upfront cost would be somewhere in the region of $2,815 CAD, or $703.75 per member. When you consider that musicians tend not to be the wealthiest demographic and that Canadians can enter the US as tourists for free, it’s hardly surprising that bands frequently employ some subterfuge in order to make the crossing illegally.
In researching this story I heard of several, increasingly elaborate, techniques bands have used to sneak themselves and their equipment into the US. A common move is traveling separately without gear in order to look less like a band, sending band members over the border in separate cars or on planes and busses to deflect suspicion, and then picking them up on the other side. Once over the border, some bands have full second sets of equipment stashed with friends in the US. Others take advantage of Guitar Center's (a large American chain of musical instrument retailers) no-questions-asked 30 day return policy, buying an entire band’s worth of gear, keeping the receipts and original packaging, and then returning it all to a different Guitar Center location before crossing back into Canada. One band got a friend who had moved to the US to fill out a “Declaration For Free Entry of Unaccompanied Articles” form, mixed in the band’s gear with a collection household items purchased at Value Village, told the border guard they were bringing the items to their friend who had left them behind in Canada, and then discarded the coffee table, TV and toaster on the side of the road in rural Vermont.
Photo via Wikipedia
Another popular technique is admitting to the border security that you are a band, and bringing your instruments with you, but removing all of your tour dates from the internet and getting a letter from an American recording studio saying that you are entering the country to record, which is entirely legal. This ruse has fallen out of favor more recently as border security has gotten wise to Google Cache, but people were getting caught trying this as far back as 2006 and the results could be disastrous. Stephen O’Shea is the founder of the BC band You Say Party (formerly You Say Party! We Say Die!) who at the time had just released their well received debut LP, and after touring Canada and Europe, were embarking on their first major US tour with 2005 internet darlings Thunderbirds Are Now! They tried to get across the border with a studio’s letter but got caught and suffered the consequences.
“Typically a band would have no proof that they're playing shows, like you take the shows offline, this is so long ago I think we took the shows off Myspace, and you'd go down and it would be fine,” says O’Shea, “but if you have evidence in your van, say a poster or a contract or a phone number of a promoter and the border guard finds it, then they have reason to suspect that you're playing shows, and if they call that promoter and the promoter says ‘yeah, we're expecting them any minute now’ the border guard is quick to say ‘these people are lying to me’ and that comes with a minimum five year ban when you ‘misrepresent a material fact to cross an international border.’ If I'd tried to enter the states at any point during the ban I would have been arrested at the border and put in jail for 2-20 years and fined up to a quarter of a million dollars.”
In their early years Toronto’s Metz also faced difficulties owing to a ban incurred by their drummer, Hayden Menzies, while trying to enter the US with a previous band. While it’s worked out in the long run for Metz, they were stuck in Canada for the first three years of their existence, and even though the ban has been expunged and they always travel with visas, the incident still affects them every time they cross the border. “We had to spend thousands on lawyers and go through a process with Tamizdat (a New York-based non-profit that facilitates cultural exchange) to try to get everything expunged. Maybe for the past year we’ve been able to get over without getting pulled into secondary for questioning, but he still has notes on his account, so it’s still a scary process getting across every time,” says Metz bassist Chris Slorach. “We get dragged into a room and treated like criminals. Sometimes we get waved through because we’ve got the paperwork, but we’re rolling the dice every time we cross.”
Photo via Wikipedia
Even with these issues more or less resolved, for Metz and other bands at their level, the visa process represents a significant investment of time and money. “We start our visa process six months before our first date,” says Slorach, “so right now we’ve got a visa that goes until the end of April, and I’ll start doing our next set of visas at the beginning of November just to make sure we’ve got time and that we don’t have to pay any of the extra fees, cause it’s an extra $2500 if you have to expedite. And just dealing with it, you’re submitting a year's worth of press, all this personal information like bank records just to make it clear to these people you’re not planning on moving over there. It’s a complete financial undertaking.”
And not all bands have the luxury of having their tours booked far enough ahead of time to guarantee they’ll receive the visas at all, a state of affairs Slorach feels that US officials are largely indifferent to. “I don’t think as a Canadian going into the States that they’re really worried about the people who are crossing spending all their money to try to get to their country. We had a band on tour with us recently, a band from Toronto called Dilly Dally, and they got denied their work visa after [paying for] expediting, so it cost them something like $6000 to try to get work visas that they didn’t get. That’s harsh.”
Liana White, the executive director of the Canadian Federation of Musicians, the Canadian arm of the union that artists join in order to obtain P-2 visas, suggests that the union dues are necessary in order for the union to provide services to its members, but acknowledges that those benefits, things like contract protection and access to their “quite healthy” $800 million pension fund, don’t necessarily do much for the developing artists who are joining for the visas. “We are aware that these benefits aren’t necessarily applicable to emerging bands, but that they are paying the same dues,” she tells Noisey. “We’re definitely aware of it and we do try to work with these situations. I think it’s something that we need to look at a little bit more closely, there have been very loose discussions, but nothing that I can say is ready to come to fruition.” According to White the industry has changed. The downturn in revenue from recorded music owing to streaming and piracy has placed an increased emphasis on live performance, and these changes have passed present visa regulations by while throwing her organization’s role in the process into doubt. “Our organization has been around for over 100 years and it got into a rhythm of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ but it’s broke! It’s kind of broken, the situation needs to be re-thought.”
There is a consensus in the music industry that the current system is broken, and Stuart Johnston, the president of the Canadian Independent Music Association (CIMA), sees the established system as a violation of the “spirit of cultural reciprocity” and one that organizations in the industry are hoping to change. In 2013, as part of broader changes to the temporary foreign worker program, Canada briefly put in place regulations that would have made Canadian touring as financially and logistically difficult for American touring bands as the current system is for Canadian bands in the US. But thanks to the efforts of CIMA and others, the regulations were quickly amended. CIMA argued that foreign artists are vital to the operation of Canadian businesses and persuaded the government to see music as “an interactive global market” that works differently than other industries. As a result, Johnston contends, “we have a workable model in place to allow artists to perform in Canada from around the world. So we're sending a message to the US saying, ‘We need reciprocity.’”
Photo courtesy of METZ's Facebook
Fortunately, CIMA is not fighting this battle alone, as their counterparts at the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) are in the early stages of lobbying US legislators to amend the visa requirements. “They see this as an American issue,” says Johnston, “it’s about US jobs, it’s about US labels, there are a multitude of US labels with Canadian bands on their rosters, so they need those Canadian bands to tour in the US, they see the collaboration that we have with the US, and labor mobility issues through NAFTA and other trade agreements that should be honored for the music industry.”
Obviously, CIMA’s success in working with the Canadian government does not necessarily imply that A2IM will be able to convince American lawmakers to see things similarly, but Johnston’s experience with the Canadian government leaves him cautiously optimistic: “Obviously immigration is a big hot potato in the US elections, in particular now with Trump focusing on the Mexican border and what not, so immigration is a political problem in the US, but given that the Canadian government has changed its rules, and that we have strong US advocates painting this as an issue for the American music industry, I'm hopeful that we will see changes over the course of time.”
Tom Avis is a writer living in Toronto. He's not on Twitter.