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Independent musician Tess Roby who makes synth-centric pop music from Montreal.Patrick Boivin/Handout

The costs that independent musicians such as Tess Roby have to bear to tour their music have always been high. Someone has to pay for all the flights, rental cars, gas, hotels, visas, backing musicians and tour managers – food is also nice – to make concerts happen. Save for lucky hit makers who score serious financial backing, it’s often artists themselves who backstop some or all of their tours.

Things have only become worse since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with surging inflation making expenses more expensive while concert payouts often stay the same. “A lot of artists aren’t seeing their costs come back,” says Roby, who makes synth-centric pop music from Montreal.

This year, the biggest and closest touring market to Canada may become even more prohibitively expensive to play. In early January, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services proposed to more than triple the fee to process the temporary work visas that musicians from around the world need to have in order to tour the United States. Its reasoning is to “recover costs and maintain adequate service.”

Under the new proposals, the cost for certain P-type and O-type visas to enter the country would shoot up from US$460 to more than US$1,600 each, adding what can be a debilitating cost to enter the U.S. for musicians who are sometimes lucky to make a few hundred bucks a gig.

The potential price surge was enough that representatives from the American Federation of Musicians, in part representing its Canadian Federation of Musicians wing, sought to intervene last week. Alongside lobbyists from other tour-dependent artistic disciplines, such as dance and theatre, they met with the U.S. Small Business Administration last Thursday to seek support in opposing the fee increases.

Liana White, executive director of the Canadian division, says the meeting went well, and the Small Business Administration would throw its weight behind the fee-increase opposition. “This office was a very good resource for us, because they’re already planning to take action,” White says. (The Small Business Administration’s advocacy office told The Globe and Mail that it took the concerns raised in the meeting very seriously, but said it was still gathering information before taking a formal stance.)

One major component of the visa-fee increase is a US$600 fee that would help fund broader U.S. asylum programs, which officials say is “to shift some costs to requests that are generally submitted by petitioners who have more ability to pay.” White sees this as unfairly shifting costs down the chain: “They want to put that on the backs of artists when it really should be the U.S. federal government paying for those humanitarian efforts.”

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, did not provide comment before publication time. It is accepting comments from the public about a sweeping number of fee-change proposals until March 6, after which it will determine which to put in stone.

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Toronto-based Weather Station bandleader Tamara Lindeman says that the cost increase could become prohibitive to whole swaths of artists.DANIEL DORSA/Handout

The Weather Station bandleader Tamara Lindeman, who on recent albums Ignorance and How Is It That I Should Look At The Stars has shifted her attention from folk music to jazzier textures, warns that the cost increase could become prohibitive to whole swaths of artists. “If you’re crossing the border to play a few shows, you might be grossing $600,” Toronto-based Lindeman says. “A $1,500 visa to do that – it’s just not going to happen.”

Depending on tour length, Americans sometimes don’t have to pay anything to play shows in Canada. Yet the costs for Canadians to cross the same border keep creeping up.

The last major visa-fee increase took place in late 2016, when American authorities raised the processing cost by 42 per cent to US$460. That increase drew the ire of Canadian musicians, who warned that such a price boost might prevent nascent performers from building up audiences in the crucial U.S. touring market.

Just over six years later, the proposal to increase P-type and O-type visa fees is drawing even starker condemnation. “These rising costs are going to hit lower-income, working-class, marginalized and emerging artists the most,” Roby says. “These are some of the most integral voices in art.”

Roby was one of the first artists to draw attention to the rising visa costs on social media. The consequences, she says, could hurt U.S. fans as much as international performers. “U.S. consumers are going to see increases in the cost of ticket sales and the cost of merchandise,” she says. “It’s going to have this ripple effect.”

Canada is a very small touring market, and Canadian hitmakers from Neil Young to Drake have largely blown up thanks to working the U.S. market. And touring has only taken on increased importance over the past two decades. It was once positioned as a marketing opportunity for musicians’ records and CDs, but as illegal downloading and streaming sucked the money out of recorded music, the economics of the industry shifted. For many musicians, performing live has become the payday that keeps them playing at all.

The shift has not been particularly sustainable.

Roby has been through the ringer with touring before, warning on Twitter late last year that she wasn’t able to tour her 2022 album Ideas of Space as planned, as she grappled with both her own rising costs and an industry in search of guaranteed ticket sales. (Artists have begun pushing back against the ways industry players try to recoup costs, with artists such as the Polaris Music Prize-winning musician-activist-author Cadence Weapon campaigning against venues that take a cut of merchandise sales.)

Atop the face value of the temporary U.S. work visas, there are other hidden costs to touring the U.S. Nearly a third of a performer’s income can also be withheld by promoters or venues and considered a U.S. tax liability, requiring complicated tax filings in order to recoup some of the money later.

Expediting a visa application, meanwhile, can cost as much as US$2,500. And because of its role in petitioning American authorities for visa processing, the American Federation of Musicians charges additional fees to musicians.

Andrew Cash, the Canadian Independent Music Association’s executive director, a long-time musician and former Toronto MP, says he’s been in talks with the American Association of Independent Music about preventing visa costs from skyrocketing.

“It’s already too expensive,” he says. “The people I talk to in the music industry in the U.S., they don’t want to see this happen either.” Because music is a global market, “the more friction they have, the harder it is for them as well.”

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