How to help bring your favourite band to Toronto
Have you ever really looked forward to a show, only to find out the artist didn't make it over the border? While this can happen to even the most solid of concert promoters, fans often won't see much of an explanation. Meanwhile, artists with the best of intentions can be left stranded at airports or border stations — resented by fans and jaded by Canadian bureaucracy.
When talking about building a stronger music scene in Toronto no one debates the need for more capable promoters: people actively bringing talent to Toronto, and helping touring acts find local audiences. Competition is healthy, and a tale of a strong show for one artist can travel far through touring networks: but the same goes for disasters. So how can Toronto promoters defeat the whims of Canada Customs?
Rules can be fickle, bands can be unaware of restrictions, and when Customs flexes its authority on artists, it's a worst nightmare for everyone involved. Bands from psych punk favorites Tonstartssbandht to old school teen-poppers New Kids on the Block have had troubles at the Canadian border, and Toronto fans have missed out on acts like White Ring, Dipset, Coolio, Rye Rye, Kreayshawn, and Balam Acab, to name a few.
An extreme example is one Italian musician, scheduled to play The Garrison last winter. Calgary customs found the artist's extensive collection of pedals and musical gadgets in his luggage, located tour dates via Google, and made the artist buy a ticket back to Europe; he never officially made it onto Canadian ground. As Bobby Kimberley of Young Lions told us below, even Andy Rourke (The Smiths) has gotten jerked around.
So, say you're an aspiring promoter, or you just want to help a band out with a Toronto show, but you've heard the horror stories. In the interest of someone out there finally bringing Tearist up to Toronto, or (yeah right) solving Pictureplane's border issues, I asked local DIY, or DIY-ish, concert promoters how they address getting bands and artists into Canada, and how to (legally) beat the system.
Bobby Kimberley (Young Lions Music Club)
When dealing with agents, make sure they tell you explicitly what needs to get done. Often they'll assume you've done this a million times, rather than walking you through the process, and you'll end up in a pickle when it matters most and you've forgotten to fill out some of the paperwork because you didn't know any better. At least, that's what happened to us last fall.
We were bringing Andy Rourke (of The Smiths) in for a DJ party on a boat. As a new company, it was our first time dealing with an international act, and we were guessing our way through. On the day of the show, we ended up getting a call from Canadian Customs telling us they had Andy held at Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island because we had missed something (I'm still not 100% sure what). Seconds later, Andy's agent was on the other line wondering WTF was going on, after which we accepted mutual blame for making assumptions throughout the booking process.
After about a dozen phone calls and frantic pacing, it ended with me hopping on my bike, taking the ferry to the airport, and making an in-person plea to the border guards to let it slide. Let it slide they did, thankfully, but it's certainly a mistake we'll not make again.
Next in action: Kubrick II feat. WEAVES, Sept. 6 at Adelaide Hall.
Mark Pesci (Mark Pesci's Punk & Hardcore Shows)
Getting bands over the border into Canada has become a lot easier over the last 10 years. When I first started booking shows, it was common for promoters to fake recording contracts to get bands over the border. Now it's comparatively far less stressful. However, I see three major problems with the current immigration system.
The decision to let a band into Canada or not is 100 per cent at the discretion of the Immigration Canada officer or supervisor on duty. This is a constant source of anxiety; catch somebody in a bad mood and you risk not getting in. Some borders are more welcoming than others. I'd argue there need to be clearer rules regarding bands entering Canada without permits, but I fear that this would likely make it harder for bands to get in.
Second, the perception of international bands that it is difficult to get into Canada needs to change. I talk to bands all the time who are under the impression that it is impossible to get into Canada, despite changes in immigration policies making it easier.
Finally, Immigration Canada considers DUI offenses as a serious criminal offense. Sadly, the culture in some areas of the States means it's fairly common to see artists with DUI's; there is a process for artists with DUI's, but it takes time and money, and for small artists it simply isn't worth the risk to play to 100 people in Toronto and Montreal. It would be nice to see our country's immigration soften the rules for about what amounts to a non-felony offense in the USA.
I also tell bands not to lie to immigration officials, as they really hate that. Coach your band on how to talk to the border people: "Our show is not at a bar, it's at a concert venue"; "Our show is not at a house, it's at an arts space that has been rented for the show"; "People are buying tickets or paying cover at the door." And tell them to wear clean clothes and be polite. Sometimes that's not obvious to a band that's been on the road for six weeks.
Next in action: Screaming Females w/ Greys & The Beverleys, Aug 22 @ The Shop under Parts & Labour.
It isn't difficult to bring artists across the border once you've figured out the LMO application process and the necessary paperwork. The most difficulty I have had are artists that I want to bring with misdemeanor charges, which could be as small as having a DUI, unable to cross the US-Canada border. That said, there is definitely a barrier to becoming a promoter that books artists from around the world. When we first began, it wasn't easy to convince agents to give us a shot, it was almost a Catch-22 situation in that you have to have experience doing international bookings in order to do international bookings. However, my suggestion is to start off smaller with great emerging artists, really handle them professionally and let your events speak for themselves.
Next in action: TBA.
Matthew Almeida (Nocturne Club, The Rockpile, & various)
I come from a unique perspective, having brought over artists both legitimately and with my own personal legal tactics when it comes to work visas. Usually when dealing with agents, they will handle most of that stuff. I'm fortunate that both The Rockpile and Nocturne, the venues I do 75% of my bookings in, have entertainment licenses, so most acts are exempt from needing visas. When dealing with artists directly, it's not that complicated if you read over Canada Customs' policies for what does and does not need a work permit. Say you bring an artist over to Canada and you shoot a music video and record a song for them as deferred payment for their shows, they don't need a visa.
If any young promoters out there want to bring in an act from out of town, I will happily explain the paperwork, hell, I'll even email you the contract template I use! There is also a great resource that my friend Jess Montebello from Folk The System has been putting together called the "Do It Together Phonebook" that is a resource for bands to book their own tour with DIY promoters all over the world.
Next in action: Bridge Rave, Sunday August 25th (the meeting Point is Broadview and River Street Skatepark).
Almeida's enthusiastic offer to share his dox is a perfect place to break. A strong scene is an open scene, and I doubt anyone above would mind newbies, or experienced promoters, reaching out to them for advice.
In my experience, a simple template exemption notice on venue letterhead will go a long way. Make sure the artists have your contact information for any bad situations that might arise, and to prevent bad situations. Don't assume anything: check to be sure they will know the rules, have their visas and paperwork handy, and not act suspiciously, or blare Celine Dion, while attempting to cross.
And to bands: please, just pretend to be as bougie as you can manage. Dress conservatively, have your papers and passports ready, turn your stereo off, harass everyone in the band until you're sure there's no contraband kicking around, and speak politely and evenly. Everyone in the vehicle or party needs to know what's going on, who is taking care of you in Canada, and the locations and contact info for places you'll be staying (idea: everyone should have this information written down somewhere on their person.) Don't act sus. When you're 10 kilometers past the border, then freak out and blast Celine Dion. You made it!
Photo of White Ring by Galen Oakes. Second photo by Michelle Cortese, Mean Jeans photo by Ivy Lovell, fourth photo by Denise McMullin. oOoOO & Young Prisms photos by Aubrey Jax.