Live Music Exchange Blog

New fees for foreign musicians touring Canada – Richard Sutherland


As of 31st August 2013, changes to Canadian visa rules mean a doubling, tripling or even quadrupling of the cost of bringing in international artists to perform in bars, restaurants or coffee shops, but not large-scale events such as arena shows.  In this week’s guest blog post, Richard Sutherland of Calgary’s Mount Royal University offers a well-informed summary of the issues, and calls for greater understanding within the Canadian government of how the live music sector works.

Richard is an Assistant Professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, where his work focuses on the Canadian music industry  and its interactions with government policy. Prior to academic life he worked in the Canadian music industry in a number of roles, from journalist to label manager to policy researcher.

Canadian musicians, like those in many countries, are all too familiar with the onerous visa requirements of the US government and the difficulties they impose on foreign artists trying to tour there. It now appears that Canada itself is following a similar path to restrict the entry of musicians from outside the country. On July 31 the Canadian government introduced new fees that will drastically increase the cost for restaurants and bars to book foreign acts.

Previously, foreign acts playing these venues only needed a work permit at a cost of $150 per person, with a maximum of $450 per act. This permit would cover all of their dates in Canada and it was relatively easy for venue owners to share these costs. Now each venue must now also seek a Labour Market Opinion from the Canadian government at a cost of $275 per person (non-refundable, even if the decision is negative) which could make the total cost $425 per person. Needless to say this may well discourage these venues from booking foreign acts.

Far from resulting in more opportunities for Canadian artists the new measures may have the opposite effect. As a number of promoters have pointed out, when foreign acts play shows up and coming local acts play the opening slots, attracting bigger audiences than they might otherwise. It is also clear that shows by non-Canadian acts are a crucial part of the revenue stream, not only for concert promoters but also for the smaller venues that also book Canadian artists. What the measures do then is merely weaken a crucial part of the infrastructure for live music with the result that there will be fewer places for Canadian bands to play.

Even more perplexing is that it is these regulations do not apply to larger concert venues (such as sports arenas or concert halls) or to festivals. The promoters of these events will not need to obtain either a work permit or a Labour Market Opinion but performers who enter the country under these arrangements are specifically forbidden from performing in bars or restaurants. The result is that a concert promoter booking a big name act, such as the Rolling Stones to play at Toronto’s Rogers Centre (a sports stadium that seats over 50,000) would not pay fees (or even fill out any forms!) while a venue such as the Horseshoe Tavern (one of the city’s most established venues for live music) booking a non-Canadian act of, say, five members might be on the hook for up to $2125 in fees. This seems very odd, coming from a Conservative government that has loudly and repeatedly stressed its commitment to small businesses.

In fact, although it would seem that the new regulations are specifically targeted at such venues they have little to do with live music per se. The sector is merely collateral damage in an effort by the federal government to tighten up the regulations around issuing temporary work permits for foreign workers. For a number of years under the Temporary Foreign Workers Program, Canadian employers could bring in foreign workers on temporary work visas in areas where there was deemed to be a labour shortage (and pay them up to 5% less than the going rates for Canadian workers). Permission to do so was dependent on obtaining a Labour Market Opinion from the government, confirming that there were no Canadian residents qualified or willing to do the work. However, there has recently been widespread suspicion that the program has been used by employers simply to drive down labour costs and that the government has been relatively lax in applying proper criteria in issuing these opinions. As well, there is the concern that workers brought in under the program are vulnerable to abuse, without recourse to the resources and rights they would have as actual immigrants. When, earlier this year, it emerged that Canada’s largest bank was laying off a number of staff to replace them with temporary foreign workers the government began to move quickly to make adjustments to a program that was becoming politically embarrassing.

The reaction to the new regulations from the Canadian music industry has been overwhelmingly critical. An online petition to the Minister of Employment, Social Development and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, to reverse the measures was launched on August 28 and has already attracted nearly 70,000 signatures. Industry groups, such as the Canadian Independent Music Association have also written to the Minister, protesting the regulations. At the moment there is little indication from the government that it will change its mind about these regulations. The Minister maintains that the fees are about ensuring that taxpayers do not bear the cost of applications and preserving jobs for Canadians, exhibiting a hitherto unsuspected degree of cultural nationalism

The complaints about abuses of the temporary foreign workers program did not come from out of work Canadian musicians. However, the music industries, while seldom a driver of government policy in their own right, have found themselves caught up in a larger policy discourse with tremendous implications for their business. In this case, the new requirements do not seem to reflect any distinction between different types of labour and the very different conditions under which cultural workers operate. Under the new guidelines touring musicians are treated as though they were being hired on the same terms and for the same reasons as kitchen staff.

In Canada, the federal government has not concerned itself much with the live concert industry. Its music industry policies focus mostly on sound recording and, to a lesser extent, music publishing. But this policy is not evidence of a new  found interest in live music, rather it just illustrates the lack of any real engagement with the live sector, despite the fact that it is now contributes considerably more to the Canadian economy than sales of recorded music (About 14% more. See: Music Canada: Economic Impact Analysis of of the Sound Recording Industry in Canada).

There is clearly a need to educate the government about the live music industry and with this episode there is also an opportunity to do so. As public opinion mobilizes around the issue, this may be a chance, finally, to bring live music onto the federal policy agenda in Canada.

Richard Sutherland

Please note that this is a forum for discussion, dialogue, and debate, and posts and comments on this blog represent only the author, not Live Music Exchange as a whole, or any other hosting or associated institutions.


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