Blame Canada

How the post-9/11 border is keeping us safe from indie rock

He's landed on a government watch list, had his eyeballs scanned and fingerprints archived, and been cited for attempting to cross borders with illegal merchandise manufactured abroad—thankfully, guards and immigration authorities have him in their sights. Unfortunately, he's not a terrorist lugging a dirty bomb in from Canada. He's a twentysomething indie-pop musician, originally from Toronto, who's one of the growing number of creative casualties resulting from amped-up visa fees, byzantine union policy, surly customs authorities, and a post-9/11 climate of aggressive paranoia.

The spurned musician wanted to keep his identity anonymous, for fear of future retribution from customs authorities. It's a common theme. "I hate The Man, but I am kind of worried about talking on the subject of sneaking into the States," wrote another prominent indie-rocker via e-mail. "I think they are vengeful and terrifying." Are we winning the war on terror? That's debatable. But it's abundantly clear that we've crippled the once-laissez-faire musical exchange between the U.S. and Canada.

The timing couldn't be worse for north-of-the-border acts like Hidden Cameras, Frog Eyes, Wolf Parade, and Handsome Furs. Their star is ascendent back home, and touring the States is a way to get the word out, sell a few T-shirts, and build a reputation at Yankee music festivals like CMJ and SXSW. As with anything involving the U.S. government, though, there's a wealth of paperwork, particularly the dreaded P-class visa, a wisp of paper that applies to performing artists and athletes and allows foreign bands to legally play for pay here. P-1 visas cover up to a year of cross-border touring, and as such are highly coveted; unfortunately, a musician needs to prove "sustained international renown," which means at least a year of noticeable fame to back it up.

Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs, clearly posing no national security threat whatsoever
Matt Moroz
Dan Boeckner of Handsome Furs, clearly posing no national security threat whatsoever

"When you apply for your P-1 visa, if you don't have hard press, you can spend a shit-ton of money and still get denied," explains Dan Boeckner of Wolf Parade and Handsome Furs, the latter an upstart Sub Pop duo that recently scrapped a U.S. tour after visa difficulties. "They don't take Internet press seriously—you have to send them a magazine they've heard of, like Spin or Rolling Stone." Boeckner was wielding a P-1 visa under the established Wolf Parade moniker, but that didn't cover the Furs, his new project with fiancée Alexei Perry. "There's a certain level of hypocrisy with the Canadian system for media," he explains. "A couple years ago, when Montreal started blowing up, it was front-page entertainment news in every publication, and there was a lot of patting ourselves on the back. But then there's no one in the country here, outside of the musicians' union, who's actively petitioning the U.S. government to loosen up their border laws."

For most touring musicians, a P-2 visa is the easier option, handled through the American Federation of Musicians, a joint U.S.-Canadian union. But the price leaps from 190 to 320 U.S. dollars on July 30, and that's assuming an impossible scenario in which a band with a fully booked tour itinerary applies four months in advance. A "rush" application adds $1,000 to the total—double that if you want to cover support staff and roadies. (In March, California Democrat Howard Berman floated the Arts Require Timely Service—ARTS—Act, pushing a shorter 45-day window on visa processing. It passed the Senate and is now awaiting House approval.) Add in the cost of AFM membership and union dues, and all of a sudden that three-week jaunt down the Eastern seaboard might be a bit more trouble than it's worth.

For a scrappy Canuck indie band, those fees can often be prohibitive, and that's if their visa application is even accepted. Vancouver dance-punk act You Say Party! We Say Die! was turned down because they weren't making enough money to qualify. A tour opening for Thunderbirds Are Now! was netting them a paltry $200 a gig; the AFM mandates that a band needs to be making a certain rate—which varies depending on the length of show and number of band members—in order to earn their visa stripes. (It's a trade secret that savvy promoters will doctor contracts to reflect this minimum.) "We were denied for those permits, and we're like, We're going anyway," recalls Stephen O'Shea, YSP!WSD!'s bassist. "We had our story: We're going to L.A. to record a demo."

That trick had worked in the past—all you needed was a bit of creativity and a U.S. phone number to list. Unfortunately, the band was also carrying a minutely detailed tour itinerary that listed previous and upcoming U.S. dates, a hot piece of evidence they were too tired and too cocky to dispose of properly. Customs officers pulled O'Shea aside and grilled him for five hours; meanwhile, other guards called the promoters listed on the itinerary, verifying a string of dates down the West Coast. "The trick is, you've got to maintain the story," asserts O'Shea, who was busy prevaricating while half-American vocalist Becky Ninkovic "turned on the waterworks" in the lobby. "You're talking to different agents, and they're going to look for holes. It ends up I lied my way to the top of the chain of command."

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