How Artist Visas are Killing Underground Music in the US

In early 2018, in response to the previous year’s controversy over Italian post-punk band Soviet Soviet being detained and deported, the SXSW has now changed its contract language which had previously stated that the festival will contact immigration authorities if a foreign artist planned to perform at the festival without the proper Visa.

The contract now reads:

“An Artist seeking to enter the United States to perform at SXSW is solely responsible for obtaining any applicable visa(s) and complying with all pertinent immigration rules. To secure Artist’s spot in SXSW Music, Artist agrees to notify SXSW about how Artist intends to enter the U.S. (what type of visa or if using the Visa Waiver Program) by February 5, 2018.”

We filmed a short interview Soviet Soviet after the fiasco, where the band had stated that it is “stupid” that American bands can play in Europe without obtaining a Visa, and they spend the night in prison trying to promote their band in the states.

Watch below:

Indeed, there is no planning or extra paperwork needed for performing in Europe, while in UK you can apply to perform no sooner than three months before your trip, with the processing taking up to three weeks.

Recently post-punk icon and godfather of goth Peter Murphy ran into trouble himself, as he had to postpone (for a second time) his planned 15 night residency in San Francisco due to his visa approval being delayed.

At first, Murphy had been delaying individual nights of the residency in hopes of having visa approval come in last minute, while working its way through a backlog of Turkish applications.

“Due to a brief diplomatic spat last year between the US and Turkey resulting in a temporary mutual ban on visa issuances to each country, a backlog of Turkish applicants has seen Peter’s own caught up in the pile.” states Murphy’s management.

It is true that the US and Turkey recently had a visa crisis due the detainment of a Turkish employee of the US consulate in Istanbul, who had ties to Fethullah Gulen, a Pennsylvania-based cleric who the Turkish government blames for a coup attempt in 2016.

However, even if Murphy who was born a British national, had his UK original citizenship to apply, that would not have guaranteed him timely entry into the states to perform for his waiting fans.

Update: Peter Murphy has had to postpone his residency now for a third time.

Many foreign artists and performers begin the process of filing paperwork for US tours up to a year in advance, and yet still do not have their visas granted in time under normal circumstances, resulting in a catch-22 of lost money and time, since a performer can’t be considered for an artist visa unless they book their itinerary first, sinking thousands to tens of thousands of dollars into booking fees, venue rentals, interstate transport, hiring crew, advertisements, and more. The bare minimum time to start the visa process is six months before the first date on the tour. Anything shorter than that up to three months time will require premium processing fees, and most often a lawyer’s assistance.

Einstürzende Neubauten

For some legacy acts, touring in the states is no longer worth it. In 2010, German Industrial music pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten experienced heavy losses when their ten date 30th anniversary tour of the US was held up by bureaucratic red tape.

“While the US Department of Homeland Security did issue approvals for the band’s visas,” the band had to announce on on November 29th of that year, “it was not done in time to secure the appointments at the overseas embassies and consulates that represent the necessary final step in the process.”

The tour was canceled just two days before the Berlin based band were to perform first gig of the tour at The Fonda Theatre in Los Angeles. The band has not toured the United States since.

Minor Victories | Photo by Brian Sweeney

In 2016, supergroup Minor Victories, consisting of members of Slowdive, Mogwai, and Editors had to indefinitely delay their North American Tour because of visa issues, and were unable to reschedule given their busy schedules with their full time projects, resulting in fans stateside missing out on this rare collaborative project live.

Rose McDowall | Photo by Gilbert Blecken

In some cases the timely booking of a tour concurrent with an artist’s resurgence in popularity can be crucial and devastating if a visa is not acquired. Such was the case last year for Rose McDowall, the polka-dotted pop queen who later transitioned into industrial and neofolk. NIGHT SCHOOL was responsible for a handful of releases by the Strawberry Switchblade singer, including a reissue of Cut With The Cake Knife and the newly recorded Our Twisted Love EP in 2015. As is the case with our fast-paced media consumption culture, the window to promote these releases is extremely narrow, and McDowall’s US tour was unfortunately canceled in what now feels like a missed opportunity.

For most newer acts, obtaining visas is just not financially feasible. The cost per person ranges from $1,500 to $3,000 with paperwork needing six months advance time, unless you pay extra for a rush, and even then it is not guaranteed.

Lebanon Hanover 2018 | Photo by Jonas Fransson

This has resulted in many bands entering the country as tourists, renting their equipment and touring gear after their arrival. Such was the case for popular goth and coldwave band Lebanon Hanover, who back in 2013 suffered a similar fate to what Soviet Soviet would later experience. While they were able to perform for a few dates on tour, the German band was denied re-entry to the US after performing in Canada. Most other bands avoid the risk, such as popular Turkish goth and post-punk band She Past Away, who have yet to tour the US despite a loyal fanbase.

With the current xenophobic climate not only in the US, but worldwide, it seems at the moment that this bureaucratic nightmare will not end anytime soon. There is however a chance that the free ride in Europe has its days numbered.

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