Andrew Cash is the president and CEO of the Canadian Independent Music Association.
On Sept. 11, 2001, my band was driving through Pennsylvania on the way to New York for our album-release show the next day – but when we found out about the terror attacks, we didn’t need anyone to tell us that the gig was cancelled and the rest of our tour postponed. We drove straight back home to Canada. But when we returned several months later, one of the many things that had changed was how difficult and slow it was for us to cross the border.
That was to be expected then. But in the ensuing years, it has become even more costly and challenging for Canadian artists to cross the border into the United States. And in the wake of U.S. President Joe Biden’s visit to Ottawa last month, and with Parliament set to modernize the Broadcasting Act to account for, among many things, the borderlessness of recorded music, now seems like an ideal time to start tackling this access issue for live music.
Already, most Canadian acts do their touring on an east/west axis, rather than a north/south one, because of how hard it is for many musicians to gain entry into the U.S. But proposed new visa pricing from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) could make it even harder: Visas are expected to increase by more than 250 per cent, depending on the type of visa, with the cheapest one going from US$460 to US$1,615. If a band needs a support crew, that could mean another US$1,615 a crew or band. Unsurprisingly, many artists have to pay extra to expedite or navigate this process – further adding up to US$4,000, thank you very much.
Emerging artists simply can’t afford these costs. In fact, if these fees come into effect, many artists from all over the world will have to reconsider whether it is worth spending precious resources performing in the U.S. It’s why more and more Canadian artists are considering Europe – an entire ocean away – to be an easier market to access than one that so many of us can easily drive to, even though the U.S. represents one-third of the global music market and 45 per cent of its global growth last year. And this access is crucial: In order to build stable careers that have longevity, most Canadian artists need to build audiences and revenue streams from outside of the country.
Of course, that’s not a winning argument for the USCIS. But here is one that may be: In contrast to U.S. policy, Canada is open for business to U.S. touring artists. Here, there is nearly no red tape; no work permit, no visas, no problem. The cultural importance of this free flow of creativity speaks for itself. But the business case is compelling, too: Wherever you plug in an amp, from the smallest basement dive bar to the largest stadiums, the show adds to the local economy.
In the U.S., every $1 spent on a concert ticket has a ripple effect of $3.30 in the local economy, according to a study by Oxford Economics Group. That multiplier includes concertgoer spending on things such as transportation, band merch, meals and drinks, lodging, retail, and recreation. And by some estimates, musicians touring the U.S. spend an average of US$3,000 a week on food, gas and lodging. In total, the Canadian Independent Music Association estimates that Canadian touring contributes more than $2-billion annually to the U.S. economy. Now include artists from the U.K., Europe and Asia to this list – not to mention Mexico and South America – and you’d think even the biggest music market in the world would want a piece of this action.
Indeed, everyone wins with live music. Does the USCIS not want to win, too?
It certainly doesn’t look that way. Today, artists from Canada and other countries must apply for the appropriate visa three months in advance of a U.S. tour, hope that it is processed on time at one of just two service centres (one each in California and Vermont), and then pray that, after investing both time and money into the tour, border officials grant the visa with enough time to travel to the first gig.
Now, USCIS wants to charge even more.
Ottawa must step up and add its voice to the chorus both outside and inside the U.S. that is fighting back against the fee increase and the necessity of such touring visas altogether. We need to deliver the message that changing these policies isn’t just good for Canada and Canadian artists – it’s good for the U.S. economy, too. Recorded music flows freely across the U.S.-Canada border. It’s time Canadian musicians are able to do that, too.