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.
“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.”
That translated into a fraud charge and a strict five-year ban on entering the United States—tempting the wrath of a border guard now could earn O’Shea two to 20 years in prison, plus a $250,000 fine. (The severity of the punishment is thanks to his heroically steadfast lying—a band that attempts an illegal border-crossing and then pleads bureaucratic ignorance might get off more easily.) “A lot of people had been telling us that since 9/11, they stepped up the border quite a bit, bringing guys from Homeland Security back from Iraq and straight into border patrol,” O’Shea says. “So they know how to be even harsher. They weren’t mean, but . . . the guard explained, almost in a threatening tone, You’re really lucky that this is the States, son. If this was China or Russia, you’d be out back shot right now. They don’t make it easy for you, that’s for sure.
“I still know bands that go down all the time,” he continues. “They have different ways—whether there’s an American in the band who drives the gear over and the other three just walk across, say they’re going to Seattle for a week to hang out with some friends. There’s always ways around it. Punk rock has always been about not doing things the proper way—for us, getting the visas was a bit of a weird, new thing. At the same time, we had to start doing it legitimately. I get a lot of people asking me, ‘So what did you do, to make sure that we don’t fuck it up?’ A lot of bands are using us as a good example of what not to do.”
Carey Mercer of Frog Eyes and Swan Lake recalls a kinder, simpler time: the halcyon days of the mid ’90s, when a crappy ID card issued by Money Mart, a check-cashing chain, was good enough to enter the U.S. Even now, he admits a bit of superficial hygiene goes a long way: “We shave and don’t have Mohawks. We rent a minivan. We could be young Christians coming over the border.”
In a lot of ways, the new regime simply means it’s a whole lot harder to flout a set of laws that used to be politely ignored. And if sneaking into the U.S. was once a viable option, it no longer is, mainly thanks to the online hype machine that helped put these musicians on the international radar to begin with. “With the Internet now, it’s pretty much impossible to bullshit your way through the border,” Boeckner says. “If you look like you’re in a band—if they smell ‘band,’ right?—they’ll take everybody’s passports, they will Google people’s actual names. If anybody’s blogged about you, no matter how small, or if you have a MySpace page, that will come up, and then they’ll find out the name of the band. They usually can put two and two together.” (Mercer agrees with the idea of Web-savvy border guards, but doubts there’s “a research squad checking Pitchfork.”)
There’s another, stranger motive behind all this harassment: Maybe Canadian bands are under scrutiny because they might be
competition to American bands. Just like an itinerant bricklayer who wanders down from Quebec to pick up work in Albany, the idea is that foreign musicians are taking Yankee jobs. That’s an amusing illogic that turns a rock group into a utilitarian sound-making machine, a musical widget only differentiated by its country of origin. “Why have a Canadian band play when you can be employing American musicians with the same show? That’s totally their line of thinking,” Boeckner explains. “If you talk to the visa people, they take it really, really seriously. What this all comes down to is that Canadian bands are stealing American bands’ jobs. They’re not differentiating between whether you’re a band or if you’re in contract work for an oil company or you’re an architect. With the climate at the border now, everyone is just going to have to get the proper paperwork—and pay.”
Tamizdat, a nonprofit firm, has been offering visa services for a fraction of the price charged by law firms and outside agencies. They began in the early ’90s—assisting Eastern and Central European bands that wanted to tour America—and now their roster includes a healthy number of Canadian musicians. “After 9/11, things got a lot harder for artists to get into the U.S.,” explains executive director Matthew Covey. “Up until 2001-2, a young German entering the country with a big boxful of vinyl would be considered a ‘record collector.’ Suddenly, [immigration] updated their profile: That’s a DJ coming to work, and he doesn’t have a work visa. The biggest problem I’ve heard of recently [is bands] not getting their act together in time . . . Most people in the music industry, if they haven’t figured out what they’re up against with this, they should have by now—which is in no way to be an apologist for the process. It’s not a secret. It doesn’t take a lot to figure out that it’s a nightmare.”
As for Canadian bands that can’t stand the administrative headache? There’s always the promised lands of France, Spain, and Germany, since Europe tends to be a bit more receptive to foreign creatives. “I can make a comparable amount of money in Europe, and don’t have to shell out $1,500 per person to get a visa,” says Boeckner, who meanwhile is planning another go at the border for a few U.S. summer dates with both Handsome Furs and Wolf Parade. “It’s hard, too, because if you talk to a lot of Canadian bands, touring Canada is a fucking pain in the ass—in the middle of the country, you’re looking at a 10-hour drive between cities.”
“Europe is great,” Frog Eyes’ Mercer effuses. “You come off the airplane and say, We’re here! We’re gonna rock! They say, Welcome.”
Handsome Furs (finally) play Mercury Lounge August 7, mercuryloungenyc.com