By Michael Raine
*This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of *Canadian Musician. UPDATE: In March 2016 three American congressmen have introduced legislation designed to streamline the P-2 visa process for Canadian artists entering the U.S. to perform. The Bringing Entertainment Artists to the States (BEATS) Act was introduced in Congress on March 21st by Representatives Dave Trott (R-Michigan), Chris Collins (D-NY), and Peter Welch (D-Vermont).
Back in 2014, the Canadian Government eliminated both the Labor Market Opinion fees and visa requirements for foreign musicians and their crews, thus making it much easier and more affordable for American artists to tour Canada. The same courtesy has not been extended to Canadian artists touring the United States. Currently, getting visas for a tour of any size can be very time and cost prohibitive.
Unless they’re The Weeknd, Drake, or another megastar that falls into the “artist of International Renown” exemption, Canadian musicians must obtain a P-2 visa if they plan to play even one gig in the United States. This is not as simple as it sounds. Each member of the band and crew requires a P-2 visa, which currently costs $325 USD plus a $100 CAD processing fee paid to the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM) union for its work as an authorized petitioner for temporary work permits. The costs add up quickly.
Assuming the musician/band has the money, they also need the time. Currently, the CFM advises submitting the P-2 application package at least 75 to 90 days before the first show of the tour. Significant delays in receiving visa approval are commonplace. There is also the catch 22 of artists needing to have their tour booked in order to qualify for the visa, but it is risky to book a tour before a visa is approved. It is no wonder that there are many stories of Canadian bands trying to sneak and/or lie themselves into the U.S. for an incognito tour to avoid all these hassles. But that, needless to say, is dicey.
Thankfully, the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM), the U.S. equivalent of CIMA, is taking up this cause. In May 2015, the A2IM released a statement saying, “In the spirit of The North American Federal Trade Agreement (NAFTA), A2IM is voicing support for the elimination of the current visa requirements for touring Canadian artists to enter the U.S… Under current legislation, Canadian artists are only able to tour within the U.S. after securing a P Visa, a practice that is mandated to be processed in two weeks but can often stretch to six months’ time. This can stall tours and result in artists, U.S. clubs, and restaurants losing revenue. Relaxing visa requirements would allow for an open exchange of ideas and cultural reciprocity between two neighbouring countries.”
Doing so requires going through the congressional legislative process, which, you may have heard, is difficult these days. Nonetheless, there is hope. To find out more, Canadian Musician caught up Fawn Goodman, the A2IM’s director of industry relations, who is leading these efforts.
CM:** What specifically is the A2IM lobbying for with regards to visa requirements for Canadian artists?****Fawn Goodman:** That’s really interesting because we’re still forming our strategy. I would just say that, topline, what we’re really looking for is to make the process less unpredictable, less costly, and more streamlined.
You’re probably very aware of what the problem is, which is that Canadian artists – many of which are signed by U.S. labels or folks that A2IM represents – in order to get the visa, you have to have a tour booked. So, you’re booking a tour without knowing whether or not your visa is going to come through in time for your tour. That creates a situation where you’re spending a lot of money, sometimes you’re spending even more money to expedite the visa, which obviously hedges your bets a little bit better, but you book the tour and then you think you gave it enough time and then, of course, six weeks go by, which is way longer than it is supposed to take, and you still don’t know if your visa is approved and you have to cancel shows on your tour.
So, we see this as a huge problem that affects a lot of artists that our labels sign and market, it affects those commercial tours, and it affects showcases like the SXSWs of the world. We’re now working with some immigration specialists to come up with a strategy on how we’re going to come up with a legislative solution to make this better.
CM:** In Canada, there was a clear economic motive for getting rid of visa requirements for foreign musicians because of how much economic activity is generated from Americans touring Canada. I would assume that Canadian artists touring in the U.S. are less economically important to the health of your live entertainment industry. Is that true?**
**Goodman: **Well, unless you’re a Justin Bieber fan [laughs]. But it’s interesting, that is something that we expressed when talking to potential allies in our fight in congress with this issue. It is a local economics issues. I can’t necessarily compare it to how much it is a local economics issue in Canada, because the U.S. is a bigger population and there are more touring artists, etc., but think about it this way; especially in the border towns on the northern border –Buffalo, Seattle, Detroit, etc. – what happens is that you have all of these clubs and theatres that are booking these talents and if the visa doesn’t come through, the show goes dark, right? Now you have lost wages from local crew, from the venue, from hotels, from alcohol sales, et cetera, et cetera. That absolutely has an effect on the local economy.
CM:** Who in government do you need to lobby to get these changes made?**
Goodman: In order to get legislation passed, you do have to have both the House of Representatives and the Senate onboard. We will likely start with the House of Representatives because that is where laws originate, but we’re even taking a step back from that. We do want to secure co-sponsors and interested members and we have a couple members who are potentially interested but because we don’t have anything firm right now that we’re ready to announce, I don’t want to get into the specifics of that. But we would start with our friends in the house while simultaneously getting support in the senate.
CM:** Is this seen as a partisan issue with the Democrats and Republicans?**
Goodman: No, that’s a great question. You know, supporting middle class, local economics, supporting small businesses, this is bipartisan. We’ve met with both house Democrats and house Republicans and both are overwhelmingly supportive of what we’re trying to do because they understand that this is a local economics issue and it affects small and medium businesses.
CM:** The end goal, I believe, would be to completely remove the P-2 visa requirement for Canadian artists touring the U.S., but are there incremental changes that you think are more likely, at least initially?**
Goodman: Yes. So we’re not seeking a full visa waiver at this time. I think you’re probably well aware that now would be the worst political climate to do that, given what’s been going on overseas and the concerns that the American public has about terrorism and how permeable our borders can be, both the Canadian and Mexican borders, and just general immigration issues. Because of that, we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if we didn’t understand that this needs to happen through incremental changes.
I think we’re going to start with making the process better and more predictable and not having these weeks going by with the uncertainty of not knowing if visas have been approved. We’re coming up with a strategy to make the process better and down the road the hope is to duplicate what you guys have done with American artists coming into Canada.
CM:** Is the cost of the visas part of what you’re also looking at with these incremental changes?**
Goodman: Yes. I think one of the costs that would be easiest to take off the table would be the cost of expediting visas, which is nearly $2,000 just to make sure your visa’s approved on time. That is something that we can immediately, depending on how things go, kind of take off the table, which I think would be very beneficial and reduce the cost of touring, for sure.
CM:** Is there a reasonable expectation of success on this issue?**
Goodman: You know, this is one of those things that if you’re betting on legislation in this congress, who knows [laughs]. If I’m going to frame it one way, I’ll say I am very cautiously optimistic and I have reasons to be optimistic in that we have not encountered anyone who is not supportive of what we’re trying to do. I think that is more than half the battle and I feel we have the right team that is investigating the right legislative language and solution for us and hopefully that will be worked out soon. But all the signs right now are green lights because we’ve been very smart about not asking for things that are probably unattainable right now.
CM:** What is your timeline moving forward?**
Goodman: We’re hoping to have a final strategy nailed down in January and then present it to potential co-sponsors and then get a timeframe after that.
Michael Raine is the Assistant Editor of Canadian Musician