Wednesday, August 28, 2013

New Fees For Visiting International Musicians Put The Chokehold On Smaller Clubs and Venues

Veteran Las Vegas hard rock band Hemlock
had to rework its proposed fall tour of western
Canada, because some non-exempt venues
had to back out. The effects of the new fee
are already being felt.
When you hear about a band coming up from the US to play at, say, Absinthe, do you think those band
members are "temporary foreign workers" who are potentially taking jobs away from Canadians?

My gut tells me NO. They're not stealing anyone's job. They're artists. They come to inspire, connect, and enrich our lives.

I would never put them in the same category as say, unskilled or semi-skilled agricultural workers.

Yes, there are parts of the labour market where temporary foreign workers make up a significant portion of the labour pool. Companies and entire sectors of industry build their profit/loss models around the cost of labour. But in recent months we saw some corporations trying to boost profits by taking advantage of the temporary foreign workers permission system.

The Harper government was embarassed when it was revealed that for-profit corporations were taking advantage of loopholes in the temporary foreign worker policy and scooping dozens and hundreds of people into Canadian jobs without due process. With a few quick shuffles of paperwork and an application fee, a company could bring workers in. Backlogs prevented applications from getting properly vetted. Fees were paid ... done! Everyone was happy. The poop hit the fan when it was announced that RBC casually announced that it was letting some of its Canadian employees go to be replaced by temporary foreign workers.

Those weren't tobacco pickers. Those were office workers. Something didn't smell right.

So, the federal government has tried to fix the process.

The "solution" may actually make it impossible for small business owners who hire musicians from out of country to continue doing so, and at the same time have a stifling effect on the music business in general.

Employment and Immigration Canada, on July 31, changed its policy for applying for permission for foreign musicians (workers). If it is a venue with a "primary business other than music but which also books bands or performers," $275 per musician is levied to the business owner during the application process.

Under the new policy, a four piece band would cost a venue as much as $1700 up front. Before these changes, the fee was $150 per person for a work permit.

Many musicians rely on restaurants, bars and road houses. Such venues are their livelihood. At such venues, the owners will tell you that their biggest expense is paying for musical talent. It's a tough business to be in. Some nights they're out of pocket, and of course they still must pay their performers, as agreed.

Spencer Brown, band booker at Calgary's The Palomino, was quoted in today's Calgary Herald as saying, "If I have a four-member American band at the Palomino, I’m looking at $1,700 Canadian just to get them on the bill — and that’s on top of paying out a sound tech, paying for posters, gear rental, paying the other bands, staffing ...concert promotion at this level is, in itself, a high-risk occupation. So this has just put it through the roof. There’s no way to start already $1,700 in the hole and break even. It’s impossible.”

Exception from the fee is made for “musicians in a band performing several tour dates in Canada” and “musicians and buskers coming to Canada to perform in festivals,” with the one major caveat being that they “must not perform in bars and restaurants.”

There's some wrong thinking in there. Just because a musician is playing in a bar or restaurant doesn't mean that they should necessarily be some local act, or even a Canadian on tour from some other region of the country. Truth is, some of the best visiting artists in any venue will be from the US, or the UK or elsewhere in Europe. And those small to medium venues benefit hugely from tapping into their popularity, as do the musicians who share their audience.

Local bands get a real kick in the butt when an international act comes through, especially if the local guys get an opportunity to open for them. It's a win-win where audiences and musicians benefit. Customers come in, everyone is inspired to play better, and new relationships are forged. Music doesn't have borders. New life and creativity comes from the inspiration and energy brought by an international touring act.

Visiting musicians aren't moving in. They're not stealing jobs. They're passing through, and they're here to share their art.

As Brown puts it, “Me bringing in (American act) Redd Kross is not going to devastate Calgary’s garage rock scene. It’s not going to put anyone out of work. It’s going to inspire people to pick up a guitar and put out an album. The same thing when we bring in Orange Goblin from the U.K. in October, it’s not going to destroy the city’s stoner metal scene.”

Do you think visiting foreign artists should be discouraged from coming to Canada, on the basis that the venues where they would play can no longer afford to bring them? And do you think that it's fair that the venues who want bring them in should be charged arbitrary, exorbitant fees?

It's about to happen.

Sign an online petition to have the Minister of Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism remove the $275 fee. Click here.


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