Border intrigue for bluegrass musicians

| February 19, 2014 | 2 Comments

Chris JonesI’m on an extended family vacation right now (48 hours), so with your permission (who am I kidding? You have no say in the matter at all!) I’m presenting a slightly revised version of a column which ran previously in Bluegrass Today, on the subject of musicians and international border crossings.

I will deal strictly with the issue of American musicians crossing international borders, avoiding the subject of musicians from other countries coming to the U.S. to play music. The main reason for this is that I have no firsthand knowledge of what those musicians go through at the U.S border, although, based on a handful of horror stories, I’d say that it ain’t always pretty. I quote a band manager describing a Canadian band attempting, without success, to cross the U.S. border: “The more we proved that we weren’t going down and making money, the more pissed off they got!”  (I didn’t make that up). I guess this shouldn’t be surprising, since the IRS can sometimes take a similar view of bluegrass musicians’ tax returns. They find it hard to believe that anyone would really be stupid enough to do what we do professionally. Surely we must be laundering money for a Colombian drug cartel on the side.

This brings me to point number one: don’t take border crossing advice from people who haven’t actually done it themselves. This includes advice from musicians who are relying mainly on rumors, and even some promoters on the other side of the border. Without firsthand knowledge, they may just be relying on the advice of “a buddy of mine who worked at the Peace Arch in the ‘50s” or hearsay from U.S bands that in turn got poor advice from people who also didn’t know better. So, since I have no personal knowledge of what it’s like for a foreign musician to cross into the U.S., it would be best to leave that subject to someone else. That column may be written by someone who is still being detained in the secret foreign musicians’ detention facility in Alabama.

I will also spend more time on crossing the U.S./Canada border, than on entering European countries (the other area of the world I have touring experience in). This is mainly because the U.S./Canada border is fraught with a lot more peril than the European ones. I’ll elaborate on it later, but generally, when entering Europe, you just follow the green sign, they hand you a free cup of strong coffee and a croissant, and you’re on your way.

In some ways, crossing the border into Canada to play music professionally is simple and can be boiled down to these basic rules:

When crossing the border by motor vehicle:

  1. Find the border (hint: it’s always north of wherever you are).
  2. Don’t lie or attempt to hide anything (like a banjo player).
  3. Don’t say anything stupid, or attempt to tell a joke (often the same thing).
  4. When told to proceed, floor it to the nearest Tim Horton’s.

When crossing at an airport, the same rules apply, except substitute “Follow the signs” for number 1 (above). If you have trouble finding the border when you land in a Canadian airport, trust me, the border will eventually find you.

Believe it or not, the “Don’t lie” advice is probably considered controversial in some circles. For some people, lying to authorities is just an ingrained way of doing things, and not doing so is considered the equivalent of telling the cop that just pulled you over for speeding: “And by the way, officer, I just had 4 drinks on an empty stomach. I hope that doesn’t make me legally intoxicated” (note: “legally intoxicated” is probably too difficult to say after 4 drinks on an empty stomach, so you might come up with an alternate phrase).

Here then, is a very important distinction: not lying is not the same as volunteering information you weren’t asked for (ask any elected official). I heard a story about a bluegrass musician who rolled up to the border and immediately worked his criminal record into the conversation. Do not do this. In fact, don’t give out any extra information at all, even it’s chit-chat about the weather. This is mainly just annoying to the border officials.

It should be noted that the partial lie is even worse than a full-blown one. “We’re playing at a bluegrass festival, but they’re not paying us” isn’t an advisable line. As you can see from the quote from the manager in Canada above, even if it’s true, they won’t like it. You would have been better off denying that you’re playing music at all, though I also strongly discourage that, and not just on ethical grounds: it’s just way too easy to look things up on the internet, including festival lineups. This is a pathway to being arrested and/or being barred from the country, possibly forever.

Then there’s the matter of CDs. Here again, the partial lie is a bad idea: “Yes we have 500 CDs, but we only plan to sell 7 of them. The rest are for promotion.” I was in a band that was seriously advised to do this by the promoter on the Canadian side. It was ugly.

The fact is, hiding CDs is pointless and dangerous. Nowadays, you’re only obligated to pay 5% GST (the Canadian Goods and Services tax) on the value of each CD, which is your cost. This isn’t very much, and in fact many customs agents don’t want to bother with collecting it, or they just forget, no doubt dazzled by the beauty of your band vehicle with its 350,000 miles on the odometer, and the “Sex and drugs and Flatt & Scruggs” bumper sticker on the front.

Remember, though: if you’re not asked about CDs, don’t volunteer that you have them. That’s their job. This advice is for people driving across the border. When crossing in an airport, you have to declare that you have commercial merchandise on the customs form (side note: do not draw cartoons on your customs form, no matter how appealing you feel your artwork is).

It’s worth noting that you shouldn’t take more CDs than you anticipate selling, so that you end up paying GST on a bunch of extras. Also, don’t transport any raw meat with you. I know how many bands love to travel down the highways with a load of raw meat.

Here is the most important information I can give about working in Canada, beside the fact that there are hockey players on the back of the 5 dollar bill (or used to be): You no longer need a work permit to play music professionally in Canada, unless you’re playing in a bar or you’re teaching. For a concert or festival, all that’s required is that you present your contract. I know that this is not the case for Canadian musicians working in the U.S. Please don’t ask me to explain this.

Sad to say, some Canadian customs and immigration agents don’t even know that a permit isn’t required. Don’t be deterred if you’re asked for a permit. Without making the border agent look ill-informed (avoid the use of the phrase “Listen, dummy”), simply respond by saying that you’ve always crossed with just your contract. A superior will probably straighten the agent out on this. Here’s where “I think one of the places we’re playing is a bar, but I’m not sure. And we’re doing workshops before the show. Is that considered teaching?” is exactly the wrong thing to say.

One last note about pulling up to the agent’s booth at the border. It might be worth having the band member who looks least like a wanted criminal to be at the wheel when you cross. Preferably that member is also not one who gets tongue-tied when speaking to authorities and adds a lot of extraneous details (see above): “Yes, well, we’re a band…uh..er..a bluegrass band, that’s the music that Bill Monroe created…or…uh invented in the… and uh..yes we’re not playing at a festiv…I mean we ARE playing at a festival, but I guess it’s like more of a one day indoor thing. I’m the bass player…upright…some people call it “the doghouse bass” heh heh. We love Canada. I guess it gets pretty cold up here in the winter….” The border guard will invariably say: “Please pull your vehicle over to the side and wait for the next agent.” It’s going to be a long day.

A quick note about Europe, since I described this as much easier than the U.S./Canada border: The fact that it’s easier doesn’t mean that you should feel free to lie those officials either. It’s just that the chances are that no one’s going to care enough to even ask you. Strangely enough, they seem more worried about catching actual smugglers, terrorists, and other criminals than spending hours interrogating a bluegrass band that’s entering the EU to work for peanuts. What a concept. However if they do ask you what you’re doing, just tell them. They’ll act bored.

I have heard of bands having trouble entering Europe, but usually they were openly wheeling stacks of large tubs full of merchandise marked “CDs we plan to sell tax-free” in bold lettering on the side. The band members were all wearing dark glasses.

Next week: crossing the California/Arizona border agricultural inspection stations, and why you should never respond to the question, “Are you carrying any fruits or vegetables,” with “Is cocaine considered a fruit or a vegetable?”

Chris Jones

Chris Jones wears many hats in his bluegrass career. In addition to leading his own band, with whom he tours and records, Jones is an award-winning broadcaster and songwriter.

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