Tag Archives: gigging

Avoiding Border Woes

Avoiding Border Woes

Q: I have often travelled with my community band into the US to play concerts and thought this was a good thing. Imagine my surprise when the band was stopped at the border last month and denied entry into the US because we did not have a P-1 visa. We’ve never been asked for one before—is this something new?

Border woes such as the one described above are all too common and could easily be avoided. The short answer is that, of course, this is nothing new: the temporary work visa requirement for foreign artists entering the US to perform, whether for pay or free, has long been on the books. The enforcement of the regulation was stepped up several years ago, and a temporary work visa is almost always required. However, entry into the US is still solely at the determination of the US Customs and Border Protection Officer at each border crossing, and it is not entirely surprising that this band was allowed in several times over the years and then suddenly challenged with the visa requirement. It all depends on who you get at the border.

So, how does one avoid border woes? Simply put: do your homework well in advance.

1) Get the right temporary work visa. For performing groups I highly recommend the P-2 visa available through the AFM. The musicians’ union has capable, experienced staff members who will assist with the process, and the reciprocal exchange program under which the P-2 visa is administered, provides a streamlined procedure for Federation members.

2) Make sure that all documents are in order: Passports should extend beyond performance dates (some passports may be required to be valid for six months beyond that date).

3) Make sure that all group members qualify for entry. Seventy-five percent of your band members must have been with the group for at least one year.

4) Deal with any issues of criminality for anyone in the group. Any conviction, however minor, can cause problems at the border. There are ways of dealing with this issue well in advance (Look into Waivers of Ineligibility and Criminal Rehabilitation documentation).

5) Deal with the problem of getting merchandise across the border in advance. Send merchandise in via courier or mail, if you can. If you are carrying merchandise make sure it is properly manufactured, or properly labelled (for example, promotional copies). Have the invoice of manufacture with you. For a large quantity of merchandise, you may want to use a customs broker.

6) Look into customs regulations about carrying instruments containing endangered species across the border. There’s no point in trying to cross a border to perform when there’s a danger that your instrument might be confiscated because it contains something from an endangered species. Check out the Musical Instrument Passport program http://www.fws.gov/international/permits/by-activity/musical-instruments.html.

7) Deal with the problem of transporting instruments, especially if you are flying: Make sure you know the regulations adopted by different airlines for transporting instruments.

8) Work out a strategy for dealing with the border crossing. Rehearse straightforward answers to the typical questions you might be asked by a US Customs and Border Protection official. Coach everyone to be honest and forthright. Answer questions succinctly and do not volunteer additional information.

With a little more knowledge about the regulations for performing in another country and a lot more common sense, border crossing woes can be avoided.

—I welcome your questions and concerns. Please send an email to: robert@bairdartists.com.

5 Sound System Mistakes

5 Sound System Mistakes Club Musicians Always Make

By Kent Ashcraft, Local 161-710 (Washington, DC)

5 Sound System MistakesMost engagements musicians play these days require some sort of sound system to amplify vocals, instruments, or both. Some musicians can afford to hire a professional sound company to transport and operate the equipment. If you’re one of them, congratulations; you don’t need to read the rest of this article.

However, if you are someone who runs your own gear, you may need this information. It’s been my experience that most musicians have inadequate knowledge of basic acoustical principles.

After all, sound engineering isn’t what you’re trained for. As someone with a good deal of practical experience and theoretical knowledge in this area, I have described the five most common mistakes musicians make when choosing and operating their sound equipment.

Mistake #1: Inadequate amplifier power. Most speakers come with a “continuous power handling” rating, expressed in watts. It’s natural to think of that as the maximum continuous power an amplifier can have in order to drive the speakers safely, and that using a more powerful amp will risk burning out the drivers.

Actually, the exact opposite is true. For technical reasons I won’t go into here, your speakers are more at risk if your amp isn’t powerful enough. Today’s speakers can handle a remarkable amount of clean power–the key word is “clean.” The higher the power rating of an amp, the more “headroom” it has, and the less distortion. I recommend using a speaker’s power rating as a minimum when choosing an amplifier to drive it.

Mistake #2: Mounting the speakers too high. Ever since the introduction of tripod speaker stands, it seems that many people have an urge to run them up to maximum height, thinking it somehow will prevent the sound from being too loud for the patrons. That’s what your volume control is for, not your speaker stands. Where the speakers are concerned, the basic principle is that you want the audience to hear them directly.

A typical speaker projects sound in a flattened cone pattern, about 90 degrees horizontal by 50 degrees vertical. You should visualize that coverage pattern, and mount the speakers so that the maximum number of ears are within it. Mounting the speakers eight feet in the air will generally result in most of the audience hearing only reflected sound from the room, which is much less clear.

Mistake #3: Trying to fix the room. Ninety eight percent of the rooms you will play in sound horrible. The bad news is that short of calling in contractors to rebuild them, there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it, and if you try, it will only make matters worse.

The good news is that the sound of the room isn’t nearly as important as you may think. Here’s why: Psychoacoustic research has shown that the human ear has the ability to separate direct from reflected sound, and that the brain will focus on the direct sound. It’s related to the phenomenon whereby if you close your eyes at a cocktail party, you can still pick out individual conversations around the room. So assuming that your speakers are mounted correctly, a person in the audience will perceive the direct sound of the speaker independent of the awful reflected sound in the room. If you try to notch out room peaks with an equalizer, you’ll make the room sound better by making the speaker sound worse, yet the sound of the speaker is what’s really important.

Mistake #4: Using EQ because it’s there. Mixing boards almost always include equalizers (EQ), which boost or cut specific frequencies. There are two reasons for this: One, there are rare occasions when you actually can benefit from them (mostly on instruments). Two, and more important, people are used to seeing them and therefore want them. And since they’re there, many believe they should use them.

The fact is that all microphones are designed to be heard with the EQ “flat.” If you buy the right microphones (as you should), they will sound the best with no EQ at all. Buying an expensive vocal mike and then boosting certain frequencies is like covering a prime filet mignon with ketchup. Ask any good recording engineer how he uses mikes in the studio, and he’ll tell you that he gets the sound he wants by mike choice and placement, using EQ only a last resort.

Mistake #5: Getting too fancy. If you’re running the system yourself, simpler operation is always better; after all, you have to play your ax as well. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen leaders do an extensive sound check before the gig, only to constantly fiddle with the controls on stage, making the sound progressively worse amid howling feedback.

If you use the same basic instruments and vocals on most of your jobs, you should only have to do one initial sound check, after which you should make notes of all the settings and leave them right there on future gigs.

The only thing that’s going to change is the room, and you can’t fix the room with the PA. Set all similar vocal microphones the same unless you have reason to do otherwise. If you’re running monitors, resist the temptation to use customized mixes for different people unless you have a compelling reason to do so.

In my experience, the most effective monitor mix is usually what is going into the mains, because it gives people the best sense of overall balance. The times I have heard people complain the most about what they hear from their monitors have invariably been times when multiple mixes are being used. Make it easy on yourself and keep it simple.

Running a sound system or obtaining good sound doesn’t have to be difficult. And certainly these are things you’re best off not having to worry about on the job, when you have clients to please, tunes to call, time to keep track of, and so on. If you avoid these five common mistakes, you will make your gig life easier, and your group will sound a lot better.

Your Best Gig Could Be Your Next Gig

Over the past few columns I’ve talked about crazy, memorable, and terrible gigs. That’s life as a working musician. I appreciate all the letters, calls, and e-mails about out-of-the-ordinary playing jobs. They are too numerous to mention here, but I am retaining many of them for future columns.

Besides just mentioning a highlight or funny story of some careers, three AFM members sent me books they’ve written. They range from “riding the crest of a slump” to looking back on a wonderful career as a union musician.

Hank Doiron of Local 198-457 (Providence, RI) wrote a recap of his more than 70 years as a bass player/vocalist. In his book, Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey, he mentions the hundreds of local AFM buddies he worked with through the years. Doiron is a former secretary of his local, and has had an outstanding career. One of the more unique gigs he played was when he was asked to put together a Dixie trio of bass, banjo, and trumpet. He arrived to find they were playing for a wake and the deceased’s last request was to have live Dixie music play during his calling hours.

I received The Life and Times of a Honky Tonk Drummer (available on Amazon) from Troy “Skeet” Seaton of Local 71 (Memphis, TN). It’s his stories from 45 years as a drummer in a number of different bands throughout Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

One of his fun stories was about playing at a bar with a guy who didn’t drink. It was the guy’s first job with the band in a number of years, and Seaton had a tough time even getting him to play the gig. The band was on a break, and someone bought a whole tray of tequila shooters and sent them over to the band. Skeet told one of the guys at a table next to the band that they’d had enough, and that he could drink them all. He promptly grabbed them like they were diamonds and downed them all at once. The guy in the band who didn’t drink came over to see what was going on, and the tequila grabber promptly threw up all over the nondrinking musician’s new cowboy boots. Skeet said all he could say was “welcome to the band.”

Then there was Local 1000 (nongeographic) member Jamie Anderson’s Drive All Night. The liner notes say it’s “in the tradition of the second oldest profession.” She’s been a traveling singer, comic, songwriter, musician, and a few more things beyond that. These are her recollections of grungy lodging, shady producers, half-deaf sound engineers, and miles of highway weariness. She has a very unique niche, and you’ll have to get her book on Amazon to really get a good take on her adventures as a girl with a guitar. She’s opened for major and minor acts, closed a church coffeehouse by uttering names of female parts, and danced with a tornado.

The book is a delightful mix of horror road stories on the touring circuit for her unique audience. It’s very funny in parts, and will make you feel your worst gigs were nothing compared to what she went through—no matter where you played. Her life has always been gigging, writing, networking, recording, and laughing. It’s a not-so-glamorous look at her daily grind.

Once, after slogging through a too-long sound check at a gig in Baltimore, a sound guy groused, “You’ve just never worked with such great equipment before.” She was tempted to answer, “It sounds like you’ve never seen sound equipment before.” Nothing she could do would convince him that her guitar does not usually scream like a jet at O’Hare, and her voice shouldn’t sound like something from an ancient boom box. She says you learn to live with it.

Once she had to sit on the edge of a stage in a huge theater, singing without amplification because no one knew how to adjust the computerized sound system. There was a date in Ohio where the sound equipment was locked in a cabinet for which no one had the key. She still did the gig, but only the folks in the first few rows could really hear her. She still got paid.

You learn to deal with these times, because you know the next gig will be better. Anderson writes in her book: “As long as somebody wants to hear me, I’m there. I’m especially interested in any gig in Hawaii, but Burnt Corn, Alabama, will work too.” She goes on to say, “There is nothing more satisfying than hearing applause when you’ve done a good job.” (It’s really nice when you get well over scale too.) Anderson also says she could never be an accountant because “no one claps when you balance the books.” Amen to that.

Tough gigs are a fact of life. It’s part of what we do. You learn from it. That next gig could be the best one you’ve ever had!

AFM Updates “ Road Gig ” Assistance Policy

When musicians travel to perform they face a host of challenges—from transporting and setting up gear in a new space, to finding a great late-night eating spot, to getting their instruments across a border or in the cabin of an airplane. The last thing any traveling group wants to worry about is getting “stiffed” on a gig.

If that ever does happen, though, the AFM offers help through “Road Gig,” an AFM policy to assist traveling musicians in the event of contract defaults. But what exactly is Road Gig?

First, let’s talk about what it isn’t. Road Gig isn’t roadside assistance, help at the border with a missing visa or passport, nor help in the event of stolen instruments or equipment (instrument insurance is offered through Mercer in the US and HUB/Intact in Canada). It is assistance with contract enforcement, in cases where a venue or purchaser defaults on payment.


The AFM will assist with collecting on defaulted contracts, when the following criteria are in place:

  • The claim is for a traveling engagement.
  • The engagement is covered by a written AFM contract (for US engagements only, other written contracts may also be accepted).
  • The contract must have been filed with the appropriate union local, and must meet minimum scale.
  • Each instrumentalist and member vocalist who performed/would have performed, must be a member in good standing at the time the engagement was scheduled/performed.

The policy does not apply in cases where the venue/establishment is covered by an existing AFM Collective Bargaining Agreement, or in cases where musicians are acting as a backup unit for a traveling “name” artist/act.

Making a Claim

Claims can be made by calling 1-800-ROADGIG in the US, or 1-800-INFOFED in Canada. Claims can also be made via e-mail, to roadgig@afm.org. Any calls or e-mails received after normal business hours will be responded to on the next business day. Claimants should include a copy of the defaulted engagement contract, and all other pertinent information, such as venue and purchaser details, in their claims. Upon reviewing all this, the AFM will determine the appropriate course of action, and do everything it can to effect an equitable resolution to the claim.

Enforcement and Collections

When claims are made, the AFM’s Touring, Theatre, Booking and Immigration Division will determine how best to pursue the claim. This usually begins with an official letter to the purchaser/venue to demand payment. If there is no immediate resolution, the AFM will seek authorization from claimants to pursue a legal collection process. At a minimum, the AFM may elect to pay musicians the Traveling Scale, at $150 for leader and $100 for side musician, for the defaulted gig.

When it comes to road gigs, the AFM isn’t going to rush in and change a flat tire or keep a restaurant open past midnight. But we can help our AFM traveling members from being left out in the cold, when it comes to their gig contracts