Over the border lines
For bands touring North America, crossing between Canada and the United States offers a host of experiences.
Touring musicians are faced with myriad mundane challenges while they tote their art around: It’s hard to maintain good nutrition, proper posture, or a decent sleep schedule. Personalities can clash, people get sick, vehicles break down, instruments are stolen. There’s never enough money.
Now take any artist’s regular day-to-day and add “crossing an international border” to the itinerary. Months before the tour begins, Canadian musicians must obtain a travel visa—the standard is a P2—in order to be granted entry to the United States. (Canadian artists click here for visa application info, Americans go here.)
“In our experience, preparing for the US border is much worse than the US border itself,” emails Mathias Kom of garage-folk duo The Burning Hell, from Italy. “It’s a ridiculous process no matter what. Because we don't have a US agent, I booked the whole thing myself and that meant it was me that had to convince each local promoter to sign a contract so that we could get our visa processed. This is easy enough with some of the more ‘official’ venues and promoters, but not so easy with people putting on house shows or gigs in DIY spaces.”
“We live in such a weird way of working short-term contracts. You have to have a gig every 45 days for [the visa] to stay open,” says a musician who prefers to remain anonymous. “Economically you want it to be open six months to a year. So a lot of people will get a ‘residency’ at a venue, and they won’t do half of them.”
“It’s a lot of paperwork,” says singer-songwriter Mike Evin, who’s based in Toronto and touring his 2019 release Evin on Earth. “But Canadian musicians are used to applying for grants.”
Even with the correct visas issued and paid for—currently the P2 costs $460 USD and expedited processing is $1,440 USD plus admin fees for the American Federation of Musicians; late last year the US Citizen and Immigration Services proposed raising the visa fees 20 percent—bands can still run into issues while crossing the border itself.
“Even though there are rules, there aren’t actually. Things are changing all the time,” says Kyle Cunjak, a touring musician who also owns the record label/management company Forward Music Group out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. “We crossed once and they took away our merch for no reason. The guy said, ‘You can bring 10 pieces across.’ And we were like ‘Ten pieces total? Ten pieces of each thing?’ And he didn’t know. We were around Woodstock [New Brunswick] and we had to drive back into the city and drop it all off and drive back to the border because of this one guy."
“I’ve crossed a lot of borders as a musician, and I can say without question that the US/Canadian border is the worst and most intimidating,” says Kom, whose new LP Never Work is out in April. “We often tour in the UK, for example, and although processing a British Certificate of Sponsorship can add a few minutes to the experience of entering the country, we’ve always been treated as human beings rather than possible criminals or terrorists, which is nice.”
The indie-rock band Apollo Ghosts is based in Vancouver, an hour from the American border and three hours outside Seattle. In its first iteration, from 2009 to 2013, says leader Adrian Teacher, “we were younger and a bit more silly and we would often just sneak across. We would get an American friend to roll over gear for us or go across and play on people’s stuff. We would take the Greyhound.” When the band re-formed in 2018, “we did a tour with Wolf Parade and we all had regular jobs and careers and we didn’t want to cross the border illegally anymore.”
In the early days of playing, nearly 20 years ago, Evin nearly derailed his own career accidentally, being new to the business and oblivious to working visas.
“I went to live with my aunt and uncle in New Jersey for a year so I would go back and forth. I would play cafes in New York—this was right after 9/11—and it was mostly pass-the-hat gigs. Once I crossed and the agent said, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m a musician.’ ‘Are you performing in the US?’ ‘Yes I am.’ But I didn’t have any of the proper papers. They detained us. I didn’t realize how serious it could’ve been. I can’t remember how I got off but they let us go.
“Definitely do it above board,” he adds. “Don’t try to sneak in. It’s not worth it, the consequences are too much and it’s gonna affect your career.”
(Working illegally in the United States can come with a five-year ban from the country.)
One piece of universal advice offered for crossing in either direction is “don’t stand out.” Teacher, who notes Apollo Ghosts already has an easier time than some artists because the band members lean middle-aged, suggests “make yourself look as boring as possible. Don’t be smoking anything. Make yourself as normal as you can. We used to hang a cross from our rearview mirror.”
“I know a lot of people, if they do have tattoos, they’ll wear long shirts and shave—a small effort like that will help,” says Cunjak. “They’re going to mess with a few people, and you don’t want to give them a reason.”
“Everything really depends on the agent you end up standing in front of,” writes Kom. “They may be nice to you, or they may not, but if you really want to enter the country with your band, and continue to do so, you need to be as respectful as you possibly can no matter what. Their job is to find a problem with you. Your job is to make sure there is no problem to find. Your paperwork should be in order, you should say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and on the day you cross, try to dress as much like an investment banker as you possibly can.”
Written by Tara Thorne
Tara Thorne is a writer, editor, and pop culture critic in Halifax