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As permit costs rise, U.S. touring becomes even tougher for Canadian musicians

Toronto punk band Pup played more than 250 concerts in 2014. About a third of their shows are in the United States but processing times for permits to play there are so long, they feel they need to pay the $1,225 (U.S.) “premium processing” fee that speeds up the process.

Vanessa Heins/Courtesy of Pup

Steve Sladkowski guesses his band Pup has played at least 90 shows this year. "This was a down year for us," he says, laughing. The Toronto punk band's tour itinerary has become their calling card; in 2014, they played more than 250 concerts. Frontman Stefan Babcock tore his throat to shreds thanks to this lifestyle – a story that became a central part of the mythology of their latest album The Dream is Over, which has already found its way onto many best-of-2016 lists.

About a third of Pup's shows are in the United States – a conscious move that has benefited their career, given how big its touring market is compared with Canada's. It's a common tactic for Canadian musicians.

Like many other countries, the U.S. requires visiting musicians to get temporary work visas to play concerts.

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At $325 (U.S.) a band, it's not cheap – particularly for new musicians trying to get a foothold in a crucial music market that, on a map, looks otherwise easy to enter from here. And there are other troubles for artists: The processing time for these visas has ballooned over the past several years from 45 days to nearly 120, according to the Canadian Federation of Musicians (CFM), which helps artists file for permits.

For some artists, this has meant sinking money they didn't have into tours they had to cancel because they couldn't cross the border in time – in turn burning relationships with promoters, venues and audiences they need to make their careers viable.

On top of it all, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) is raising the cost by 42 per cent, to $460, on Dec. 23 as part of sweeping changes to its fee schedule.

There may be a silver lining there – the musicians' federation believes USCIS's extra revenue could lower the dreaded processing times – but it's illustrative of the trouble Canadian musicians face when trying to build a sustainable career.

"For bands that might really be able to get some legs in the States, the most prohibitive thing can be the cost of the visa, and not the quality of the music," says Mr. Sladkowski. By regularly touring through the U.S. since forming several years ago, Pup has built audiences in major markets, and is now able to sell out concerts in major cities such as New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

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This, however, came at a price – on top of transportation, food, and other road costs, they had to pay both visa costs and dues with the musician's federation. "We assumed the cost for a long time," Mr. Sladkowski says. Only now, he continues, is the band able to recover touring expenses more easily.

Artists from any country who want to play in the United States must fill out a "petition for non-immigrant worker" form to apply for a P-2 temporary work visa, which will soon cost $460. Athletes and non-musical artists face similar increases. Getting caught at the border with the intention to perform without a permit is incredibly risky, and could result in future troubles entering the United States even with proper permits.

A permit is also required when a band does "any activity that is directly connected to their career as a professional musician," says Liana White, the CFM's executive director. This can include press interviews and public-facing festival showcases.

Sometimes a band's agent petitions for the work permit; in Canada, the CFM is an authorized petitioner, processing applications for thousands of artists crossing the border each year.

This brings another cost to the global touring process: union membership. It costs up to $255 an individual per year, depending on which region or city the member is in. While membership offers a suite of benefits, such as insurance, pension and royalty registration, some musicians sign up just for the touring permits and count it as an inconvenient cost. Then there are the CFM's administration fees – $100 a musician and $20 for each musician and technician thereafter – and final permit issuing fees, usually between $6 and $15.

But the most cumbersome and well-known fee is the $325 application, which is about to go up to $460.

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"For those musicians that are just trying to break into the United States, it's going to be financially more burdensome on them, of course, because they're not quite able to command the compensation that other bands may," Ms. White says.

The USCIS describes itself as "almost entirely funded" by these kinds of fees, and is mandated to regularly review them. This fee increase came as part of a number of changes announced this year after USCIS held a public comment period. Ms. White says that CFM, its U.S. parent and a number of other arts organizations are now lobbying to ensure that the fee increase comes hand-in-hand with better processing times. "We're basically stating, 'Fine, you've got the increase, but we need to see that the work is getting done,'" Ms. White says.

Processing times have become the bane of many musicians trying to expand into the United States. Maylee Todd, a Toronto multimedia artist and musician, set out to play a string of U.S. shows this year, applying for a permit in June – enough time, she was told to believe, for it to be processed. When she went to Vancouver on the way to Los Angeles in September – dragging all of the equipment for her multimedia Virtual Womb performance – she found out her permits hadn't finished processing.

She couldn't go, despite having enlisted musicians, booked flights, a venue and accommodations and being green-lit for a federal grant for the tour. "I was really stressed out," she says, thinking at the time that, "It seems to be impossible for an independent artist to move in the music world in the States, and to make a mark and penetrate that industry."

Ms. Todd was able to recoup most of her costs, and the venue was understanding. But she still can't believe the processing problems.

Geoff Smith of Saskatoon and his country-rock band Gunner & Smith had booked a 10-show tour in the United States last year, and applied for visas ahead of what was then a 45-day anticipated wait. By the time the tour came around, the permits hadn't been processed, forcing the band to nix the tour.

"Cancelling those shows close to the [scheduled concert date] leaves those venues on the hook," Mr. Smith says. "That's the loss of a relationship, and even bigger than money."

Pup, Mr. Sladkowski says, has given up on waiting, and regularly pays the $1,225 (U.S.) "premium processing" fee on top of all the other costs to expedite the process. But like many other things in life, in music, privilege often begets privilege. His band has had enough success to usually recoup those kinds of costs touring the United States, which newer musicians can't enjoy.

Pup will play a nearly sold-out three-night residency at Toronto's Danforth Music Hall this week – a formidable feat in their hometown made possible by years of building traction abroad. "There's a very unique set of challenges as a Canadian band if you're just gonna tour in Canada," Mr. Sladkowski says. "It's very, very difficult to sustain that, because the country is so big, and there aren't that many places you can play."

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