Right wing governments are dumb on the arts

by Chris Morin and Chris Kirkland

Remember when people who work in the arts used to complain that right-wing governments at various levels ignored them? Man, those were the good old days, weren’t they? Simple neglect would be a welcome alternative to the outright damage those governments seem destined to do when they turn their attention to anything arts-related.

Music lovers across Canada took a whack in the groin thanks to our federal Conservative government recently, as they made the similarly incomprehensible decision to include out-of-country musicians and their crews under revamped rules in the Temporary Foreign Worker Act. Ever since, fans, venues and promoters have been frantically scrambling to figure out what it means to them. So here’s a quick recap:

Musicians from the U.S. (or any other country) used to be subject to a Labour Market Opinion (LMO) application that was required of any business that hires international workers — like venues that hire bands from the States.

But that provided a permit for a one-time charge of $150 per musician (or band worker), to a maximum of $450, regardless of how many shows that band played in Canada. That meant that the venues on a given band’s tour could split the fee and afford to bring them in.

Under the new rules announced by the Conservative government, the new fee is $275 per member — for each and every show they play.

That, according to Brant Palko, who books bands at Amigos, basically means the end of U.S. bands at smaller venues like his.

“It used to be a cost-sharing thing, because every venue was non-exempt. And the exempt venues don’t want to chip in, and I don’t blame them,” he says. “Why spend money that you don’t have to? I’ve turned down tours because I can’t afford the extra fees [even before the new rules]. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said we can’t do American bands anymore because of these fees, even before the increase.”

What’s that about “exempt venues,” you say? Well, under the new rules, larger venues (like the Brandt Centre) and any venue that is strictly dedicated to music (like The Exchange) remain exempt from the charge.

But best of luck seeing an up-and-coming metal/indie/punk/folk band from the U.S. at O’Hanlon’s any time soon.

Music festivals are also exempt, which is at least a bit of good news. But independent promoters — the lifeblood of any strong indie music scene — are taking one more kick in the face while trying to run businesses that aren’t exactly making them rich at the best of times.

“Getting bands into Canada to play small shows is already a huge pain in the ass — even outside of anything financially, it’s a pain in the ass,” says Regina promoter Emily Ritenburg. “But with these new laws, we’re going to be losing more money than ever. It’s unfortunate that it comes down to money, but a lot of the smaller touring bands don’t really make a lot [of money] with DIY tours and promoters.

“It’s going to affect Canadian independent shows and promoters, because we’re going to be missing out on these opportunities. I’m going to be really wary of American bands in the future — and I already am wary because crossing the border for bands is really stressful,” she says.

So how did all this confusing, contradictory and damaging silliness occur? Well, after the controversy blew up in early September, Minister of Employment Jason Kenney insisted that “This is not a fee for U.S. musicians. It’s a cost recovery effort for all LMOs, and part of our effort to ensure that Canadians get first crack at [all] jobs.”

Sigh. Anyone with a brain can see that, while this may be a valid strategy for companies hiring apple pickers, dish washers or miners, it’s stunningly dumb when it comes to a creative form such as music.

So the question is: do Kenney and his fellow Cons actively hate indie music, or are they just utterly clueless and now too pigheaded to admit they’ve made a huge mistake?

“This is an issue of indifference towards culture and not a direct attack on it — though that’s not to say that the attitude in question is any less damaging,” says Saskatoon promoter Skot Hamilton. “It’s not that the Cons tried to administer a deliberate cultural burn, they delivered an incidental one that they aren’t concerned with remedying.”

Obviously, Hamilton, for one, doesn’t hold out much hope that the Conservatives will admit the error of their ways.

“It’s funny to me that people think this could be overturned overnight given our current government’s track record in regards to arts and culture. Making sure independent artists feel comfortable in Canada isn’t a notion that’s ever occurred to this administration, whether those artists are ours or anyone else’s. They wouldn’t piss on the Mona Lisa if it was on fire.”

Much like how Brad Wall played the banjo while the film industry burned.

In any case, you can sign a petition against this ridiculous law at change.org, just like 135,000 people have done so far. But if the track record of our right-wing governments is any indication, please don’t hold your breath.