Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

'Tour tax' makes cost of hiring international musicians prohibitive to small venues

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A new federal levy is creating big problems for talent bookers like Sam Smith of the Windsor Hotel, who fear the high cost of bringing in international musicians could silence small venues.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

A new federal levy is creating big problems for talent bookers like Sam Smith of the Windsor Hotel, who fear the high cost of bringing in international musicians could silence small venues. Photo Store

Changes to Canada's temporary foreign workers program are hitting a sour note with musicians, booking agents and promoters.

The changes, which went into effect on July 31, will dramatically increase the cost of bringing in international touring acts for Canadian bars, restaurants, coffee shops and other venues whose primary business is not music.

Dubbed the "tour tax" by its critics, a non-refundable application fee of $275 per non-Canadian performing artist and crew member is required for every performance at these venues, plus a $150 processing fee for work permits.

That means it will now cost a booker or club $2,125 to bring in a four-piece non-Canadian touring band travelling with one crew member -- a baseline expense that could effectively cripple a small venue.

Touring acts playing several Canadian tour dates, festivals or busking are exempt from the new application fee provided they do not perform in bars or restaurants.

Venues whose primary business is to present music are also exempt. Many venues in Winnipeg, including the MTS Centre, the West End Cultural Centre and the newly opened Union Sound Hall fall under this exemption.

The Windsor Hotel -- which, in 2012, re-emerged as a vital space for touring bands after the closures of the Lo Pub and Royal Albert Arms -- is one of the city's few non-exempt venues. Sam Smith, its talent buyer, has already felt the sting.

"Things have just vaporized," he says, adding the new fee will make it impossible for him to compete against exempt venues when it comes to the quality of his programming.

"It makes presenting foreign acts untenable. It's going to limit what I'm able to present to an arts-friendly city that's curious about emerging things."

Jason Hooper, artistic director of the West End Cultural Centre, echoes that sentiment. While his venue is exempt, he's concerned about what the changes mean for vibrant music scenes. "It's not as though music scenes aren't competitive, they are, but a strong scene benefits everyone. When there's only one player in town, it hurts everyone. Look at great scenes -- Chicago blues didn't happen because of one venue," he says.

The Windsor's bread and butter is its local bookings, but international gigs are important to a club's survival. Without the revenue generated by touring acts, venues across Canada in the same situation as the Windsor could struggle to remain open, potentially putting industry professionals such as Smith out of work.

To that end, the fee could also have a profound impact on breaking Canadian artists who depend on clubs to earn a living, says Sara Stasiuk, executive director of Manitoba Music, an organization that exists to help build a viable local music industry.

"Touring is really important, more so than ever before. More bands need to tour to more places more often," she says.

The new fee will make that difficult, Stasiuk says. Many small venues and clubs will no longer be able to afford to book international acts, which means up-and-coming local acts will lose out on valuable opening slots. International artists who aren't booking at the soft-seat theatre or arena level in North America will have limited opportunities to widen their fanbases because fewer rooms will be able to book them. That will also make it harder for Canadian and international acts to forge vital touring relationships.

"It's unfairly targeting the most grassroots level of our industry," Grant Paley, a booking agent with Paquin Entertainment Group, says of the fee. Because acts are only exempt from the fee if their Canadian tours don't include bars and restaurants, Paley will have to re-route a tour if his artists don't want to deal with the application fee.

"That's how these little guys get hurt," he says.

Paley, like many of the fee's critics, thinks the government's logic -- that it protects the jobs of Canadian musicians -- is flawed.

"No one can do Chali 2na's job but Chali 2na," says Paley, using the American rapper by way of example. Paley recently had to cancel two of Chali 2na's gigs at non-exempt venues in Canada, which meant his opening act, from Toronto, also lost two gigs.

"It's actually taking jobs away."

Paley isn't arguing a fee should be done away with altogether, nor that taxpayers should subsidize it, but rather points out the broad changes to the temporary foreign workers program aren't appropriate for all of the industries it covers. He argues modifications should be made on an industry-to-industry basis.

"There should be a fee, 100 per cent, but, for example, a band should be treated like an entity, not four employees," he said.

Artists, industry professionals and fans alike have expressed their displeasure on social media. A Change.org petition already has over 100,000 signatures. Manitoba Music is urging its members to contact their local MPs.

That's the first thing Smith did upon hearing the news.

"I hope that politicians are paying attention to the immediate and massive response that this news has generated," he says, noting the amount of people who have signed the petition is encouraging.

"It makes me feel like people in this country care about music, that they care about the arts."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 5, 2013 c7

History

Updated on Thursday, September 5, 2013 at 7:14 AM CDT: Replaces photo, changes headline

4:11 PM: Adds link to petition.

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