How to Tour the US as a Canadian Band

Getting to perform in another city is one of the most fun aspects of being in a band. I'm privileged enough to have played in a small handful of cities in Canada, but like the vast majority of Canadian musicians, I've never played in the United States.

Booking any tour takes months of work, and needless to say, crossing an international border adds another layer to that. It's also not cheap, which is by and large the biggest factor that keeps Canadian bands from going down south (or heading to Europe as an alternative).

That said, it's certainly not impossible to make these trips, and a large number of Canadians still travel to the US to perform each year. I spoke with the Canadian Federation of Musicians as well as some other Canadian musicians who've actually played in the States (and even had a good time) to talk about what it takes to tour in the US.

Be Mindful of Processing Times

The first obvious point is to start planning early. Some bands can get away with booking an American tour three or four months out if they've gone to the US before and/or have solid connections with venues and bands in the States, but the CFM (the Canadian branch of the American Federation of Musicians) advises you start booking shows six months in advance of your first show.

This is partially due to the work permit that you need to play in the US. Not only can it take up to 75 days to process, but it also requires you have "work evidence" before you apply, meaning that you'll need to have the majority of your dates already nailed down.

Another important thing you'll need is a valid Canadian passport, but more importantly, one that will be valid for at least six months after the day you exit the United States. Make sure to check and renew your passport if you need to when you initially start planning your tour, as this can also take some extra time to process.

About that work permit, though: crossing the border as a group of friends going on vacation and then renting gear once you’re in the States might work for a one–off show, but touring this way isn’t going to work. Not unless your ideal tour involves deportation and further barred entry into the US.

Unfortunately, this isn't just a bunch of paperwork you have file to play in the States and (hopefully) make (some) money. The permit your band most likely needs is the P2 Work Permit.

Regular processing times for this permit can take up to 75 days max, and will cost you $460 USD — almost 600 loonies. If you want to cut that max processing time down to 30 days by filing premium processing, it’ll cost you an additional $1,225 USD — roughly a million more loonies.

Luckily, you only need one permit per band (though, if a band member is doing another US tour with a different band, they will need a separate permit, and you can find detailed instructions on how to complete the P2 application here), but that cost alone might answer the question as to whether or not your band is going to the States.

The permit is valid for a full year, however, so it is possible for a band to do multiple tours with one work permit as long as you can prove that you have "confirmed engagements occurring once every 45 calendar days, or proof of regular, ongoing, professional activity within the United States over the course of one year," according to the AFM.

Joining the AFM

Filing paperwork and forking up some cash aren’t the only two barriers to entry when it comes to touring the US.

You also have to join the AFM, as they process all of the work permits musicians file for touring in the US. And yes, they charge you an additional administration fee for processing your P2 application.

Yearly dues range from $150 CAD to $260 CAD depending on your province (you can contact your local rep here). However, if your band all joins the union together, your dues will be cheaper than if you all sign up individually, and this can all be done by one person if everyone's application forms are filled out.

Between the work permit application, union dues, and processing fees, your band should budget around $2,200 CAD, depending on the size of your band.

A small upshot (take 'em where you can get 'em) of joining the AFM is cheap gear insurance, or at least cheaper than you would get elsewhere. Unless you have the fanpower of Andy Shauf, you'll be thankful you insured your gear if someone breaks into your vehicle and makes off with all your things.

Also, if you make money with your gear (i.e. if you play shows), it generally wouldn't be covered by something like tenant or homeowner's insurance, so it's not a terrible thing to consider even if you're like me and just have too much gear lying around your house at any given time. As well, some grants can require you to get your gear insured in order to receive funding.

Look For Money

Which brings us to the next thing you're going to want to look into: government funding. That's right, Americans, our evil, socialist provincial governments will steal tax dollars from the pockets of its citizens (they just roll door to door too and take whatever you have on you that day) and put it into the hands of any musician who writes them a pretty enough letter. Or at least it works something like that, I think.

It's pretty great, though, because getting a grant to cover expenses (and even paying yourself a union rate per diem, as you're now a union member) is likely going to be the deciding factor as to whether your band can tour the US. For most bands, the cost of the work permit and union dues alone are enough to make this financially unfeasible without grant funding.

So, you need to write a grant. If your band is at a point where you're considering an international tour, chances are that you know someone else in your local music community who's at least applied for one of these grants before. Ask them what worked in their application if they got the grant, or what they'd change next time if they didn't.

Even if you don't know someone who's familiar at all with grant writing, there's probably a non–profit in your province with both a lot of useful information regarding different grants you can apply for, as well as someone willing to guide you through the process and offer some advice.

These organizations are often just called "your province's name + music" (or the reverse, if you're Ontario). There are also a bunch on the SOCAN website if you're looking for a jumping off point.

What About Merch?

Let's assume you found someone to help you with the grant application, your work permit has gone through, and all your shows are confirmed. You're probably going to want to have something to sell at your shows, but bringing merch across the border poses more challenges.

First, the CFM explained that while you can bring up to $2,500 of merch into the US without engaging a US customs broker, you're still going to have to pay duty on all your merch upfront and then be reimbursed for whatever items you didn't sell when you return to Canada.

Also, everything should be boxed separately (and labelled with quantities), meaning you can't just throw all of your bands t–shirts, stickers, CDs, tapes, etc. into the thrift store suitcase you've been lugging around to every show.

What the CFM suggests is that bands find an American manufacturer for any merch they plan on selling in the US and picking it up once they cross over. The feasibility of this suggestion is debatable, though.

Many bands make a lot of their merch themselves by screen printing their own shirts, and smaller runs of CDs/tapes/LPs generally cost more than ordering a large quantity. Realistically, your band needs less than 500 copies of your record, so this option would mean that you’re paying for two separate orders and will likely end up with more copies than you actually need.

The Kitchen Sink

Another point worth considering is that some venues may be directed by the IRS to withhold 30% of your earnings as income tax. You can get some or all of this money back by filing a US tax return, but this can be avoided altogether by filing a Central Withholding Agreement.

A separate CWA will need to be filed by each member of your band before the tour even starts, rather than filing one for the whole band. You can find out more about CWAs on the AFM's P2 application instruction page.

Other smaller words of advice bands have passed along to me include buying some health insurance before you go (which the CFM can help you get), and sorting out your data plan or turning your data off so you don't come home from a bunch of days off of your regular job to a particularly nasty cell bill.

For other things to consider regarding booking a tour in general, The Famines' Raymond Biesinger goes over a lot of important information in this Weird Canada post from a few years back, which you should definitely read if you're considering playing any shows at all outside of your hometown.

This whole endeavour might seem complex and daunting. But if your band is at the point where you're touring in Canada, touring the US isn’t completely out of the question so long as you can find funding. The only thing left to do is get in the van.

Big thanks to executive director of the Canadian Federation of Musicians Liana White, Winnipeg band Mulligrub, and First Date Touring booking agent and musician Gil Carroll of the band Living Hour for their time and expertise.

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