Touring the USA – a visa nightmare
If you want to make it internationally as a musician, you cannot leave out the USA. That’s the reason why hundreds of acts travel to Austin, Texas each year in full get-up, to introduce themselves to an international audience. Others visit the land of infinite opportunities to record an album. However, everything has changed since September 11, 2001. Besides no-fly lists that contain the names of wanted terrorists, there are certain nationalities that get examined very carefully by US officials. And if you apply for a permit to enter the United States online, you’ll read in cold print that not even a visa will guarantee that. The final decision rests with the men and women that accept you at your destination airport. We thought we’d give you a couple of tips you should observe when travelling to America to make music.
Rules and exceptions
Mattew Covey founded a non-profit organization named Tamizdat, which advises UK artists on all questions regarding visa. The man was speaking at this year’s Great Escape in Brighton. Topic: visa for UK acts. According to Covey, anyone should start with the assumption that they needed a proper work visa. That was the rule. From there one could try and find exceptions. One such exception concerns showcase festivals like SXSW. It applies to anybody visiting the States in order to “show their goods and try to find buyers.” And that’s exactly what’s happening at SXSW, where acts aren’t hired for a fee to entertain people, but play for free in order to be discovered. In such cases, filling out an ESTA form online to enter the so-called visa waiver program. If it is accepted, you can enter the USA without a visa.
Now, most border officials will probably have heard of SXSW. However, you may be playing somewhere completely different, and the officer simply doesn’t believe you that you’re playing for free. (The whole justification for this procedure is that you would be taking business opportunities of local acts if you charged a fee). There are plenty of horror stories of artists and managers who encountered unfriendly and sometimes outright rogue officials that were simply out to make life hard for everyone. If you don’t want to find out, you’re not going to get around looking at the available visas. There’s the P1 for example, which applies to entertainment groups and their members, the O1 for solo acts and the O2 for backup musicians. P3 is meant for folk musicians, to put it simply. If you’re travelling under P3, it can’t harm to show up at the airport in your quilt, just to be convincing. We’re not kidding.
Once you’ve found the right visa you have to apply for it. And this can take ages. Between three to six months. This hardly mirrors the way the music business operates to put it mildly. You have to be extraordinarily well positioned as a band to be able to work with these kind of deadlines. Up and coming bands in particular usually don’t have the necessary organisational structures in place to plan a trip to the US that far in advance, let alone the finances. The P1 visa for example will cost you at least 190 US dollars. If you’d like to hear back from the visa office within two weeks, it’ll set you back more than 1000 bucks.
This adds up. A band applying for their visas through this expedited procedure will have to spend a couple of thousand dollars. That’s if everything goes according to plan. Michael Wallies of German funding agency Initiative Musik, told us about a band was scheduled to play the Vans Warped Tour in America, and had taken care of everything way in advance, even paid the expedited service fee. Because the processing still got delayed – seems to be what authorities do – the band had to rebook their flights several times, what caused additional costs. If you’re a newcomer, you can simply not afford it.
Be prepared for anything
According to Horace Trubridge of the Musicians’ Union, who was also on the Great Escape panel, “a strange sounding name or not the right color of skin can be a problem. It’s that bad. There is a paranoia around there, which some people would say is justified because of the age we live in, but it’s very real, very tangible. And when you go through the border guards’ booths, it’s a really intimidating situation.” He said that there was really not much one could do apart from being “thoroughly prepared. Knowing all the right answers is really important.” And he added emphatically: “Don’t carry an instrument, particularly when you’re going on an ESTA. They won’t believe you that you’re not going to go out there and work.”
Covey had a remarkable story to share: it was about an artist, who didn’t get his visa, because he once acted in a movie named “The Road to Guantanamo” – as a terrorist. His passport contained stamps of Pakistan and other countries on the USA’s blacklist. After countless phone calls with a very senior immigration lawyer in the States he was finally admitted into the country. “Lots of money I think changed hands, and he was walked through immigration,” Covey remembered. By the way: while said artist finally got to play his show, two security officers were at the gig to watch him.
To anybody thinking about outwitting US border guards: be warned. If you know prior to your trip that you’re going to be playing a paid gig besides the showcase – no matter how underground and unprofessional it may be – then an ESTA won’t do. Michael Wallies knows of cases where bands were sent back home at the destination airport, because the officers already knew what they were up to. You should also refrain from accepting gig opportunities that arise on site. Say you’re playing SXSW, and a rich playboy offers you good money to play at his pool party. If the authorities get any of that – this is the age of the NSA –, you’re worst-case scenario is being charged with fraud. You only got an ESTA after all.
If you’re traveling to the US to record an album, ESTA is sufficient as long as the US isn’t your primary market for distributing the finished product. Again, you’re subject to the officer’s grace. If you’re bringing your entire collection of instruments along, they might accuse you of planning to go on tour. You simply cannot predict anything. Unfortunately you can’t just go, “fuck this, I’m not going to expose myself to so much stress.” The US is still the most important music market. And once you’re over there, you’ll forget rather quickly that you had to let yourself be treated like a terrorist for months.
It’s incredible how much our life’s fortune depends on 32 pages between two pasteboards, to use the words of Italian Author Fabrizio Gatti. For now, all you can do if you want to conquer America, is to take care of your visa as early as you can, and plan your journey including potential answers for the border patrol. Maybe you should refrain from telling them that you came to conquer the United States of America. They could take it the wrong way, which means you’ll be taking the next flight back home.