EDITOR’S NOTE: Since publishing this article, some people approached me personally and over social media accusing this article of being dangerous and misleading. I admit that we published this article somewhat naively assuming that Canadian artists who seriously consider touring to the United States will do considerable more research before attempting to cross the border. One of the potential penalties for getting caught touring without a permit is a 10-year ban from entering the United States. The intention of this article was to demonstrate the sheer absurdity and inaccessibility of touring work permits for emerging artists, recognizing that several bands we have featured in Discorder have played shows in the United States illegally to avoid the financial burden. For more information on applying for work permits, please visit this link. And I encourage anyone who has a comments / questions / concerns about content published in Discorder to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or submit feedback to the same email address labelled “Hot Head Submission” to have it published in the magazine. Tagging Discorder Magazine in a post on Facebook or other social media does not guarantee a reply. —BB, March 2017
So, you’re in a band. You’ve got a good setlist together, your stage banter doesn’t suck too much anymore, and the tote bags you screen printed in your basement actually turned out okay. What’s next? Well, considering you’ve played the only bar in town every Thursday for the past year, it’s probably about time you do what every moderately successful Canadian band does — get the hell out of here and head south. But there’s a catch: as of December 20, those of us north of the border looking to tour across the USA are going to have to cough up a lot more cash to do it. The cost of a work permit is going up by 42% just before the holidays, jumping from $325 USD to $460 USD per person. That means in order to take your groundbreaking 12-piece Boy George tribute band on the road, everyone from the musicians, to the crew, to the inevitably large hair and makeup department will need to spend upwards of $620 CAN to do it.
If this sounds exorbitant to you, that’s because it is. While the fee increase may be paltry to bigger acts, this change could be downright prohibitive for independent and lesser-known musicians looking to accrue a greater fanbase. However, great minds at Discorder and throughout the local music community have come together to tackle this problem, sharing their experience, their intellect, and their secrets, to bring you…
HOW TO PLAY SHOWS IN AMERICA WITHOUT GOING BROKE FIRST
For some, booking shows covertly will be the easiest part of the process. If you’re the kind of person that finds talking with other musicians an enriching and rewarding experience, and not a harrowing process that makes you feel like never initiating a conversation again, then chances are you’ll do well at this. Do your best to adopt an American band when they come up to play a show in your hometown. Help them with booking a show in Canada, maybe offer them a place to crash during their stay, and chances are they’ll do the same for you. Obviously this type of networking is most easily done when you already have a contacts list filled with trendy American bands, but if your weekend ritual of mindlessly watching Netflix documentaries while flipping through your Explore Page has left you with no one to reach out to, it’s time to change your reclusive ways. Force yourself to go out to a show where unknown acts from the States pepper the bill, and start striking up conversations. With any luck, they or someone they know will need as much help booking a show as you do, and you can go from there. Making connections is key to finding a place to play when you’re far from home, especially if you don’t want to go through the hassle of booking through a venue (and if you’re trying to avoid getting a work permit in the first place, you probably don’t).
Better start consulting with your deity of choice now, because you’re going to need all the help you can get if you want to promote a clandestine show. Without a legit promoter, nobody is going to put up the posters you so carefully designed instead of finishing your paper / spending time with your family / whatever. Knowing and communicating with other bands is your best bet for getting anyone to notice you, so once you have a show lined up, try to sandwich your set in between two beloved local acts. With any luck, they may take pity on you and give your band a shout out on social media. This is definitely the grimmest part of the process, but you’re probably used to it from playing to crowds of nine people at home anyway.
If you’ve followed steps 1 and 2, chances are you can borrow equipment from whoever is helping you out in the USA. As to why a group of “alternative types” are all travelling down in a van together? You’re going camping; you’re seeing a concert; you’re checking out the Space Needle or some other banal landmark — take your pick. If you absolutely must bring your own gear, you can say you’re going to record, but that’s liable to its own potential pitfalls. Merch is probably best avoided unless you’re bringing very small quantities. No one goes “camping” with 100 t-shirts that all say “Your Shitty Band Name Here” on them. Also, if you’re not crossing the border near to where your license plate is registered (British Columbia to Michigan instead of British Columbia to Washington, for example), have fun with the cavity search.
In brief, playing a show or even going on tour without a license is certainly feasible, but it’s not easy. It involves a lot of time, preparation, creativity, and yes, even friend-making. If you can’t afford the ridiculous price for a work permit, we hope this list brings you some comfort — but let’s be honest, you’ll probably just get your parents to cover it anyway.
Huge thank-you to a stranger and Becky for helping put together this how-to.