by Nicole Daley & Kevin Erickson
It’s often said that is a universal language that can bridge cultural, political, and geographic divides. Indeed, cross-pollination from all corners of the globe has inspired incredible collaborations and innovative sounds. But for foreign artists, international travel isn’t always easy when they want to share their gifts with U.S. audiences.
Most foreign artists who seek to perform in the U.S. must apply for class O or P visas to be legally able to travel and earn money for their performances. These visa categories are intended for artists with “extraordinary ability,” “international renown,” or unique cultural contributions, and the applications typically require extensive documentation, tour itineraries and contracts, etc. As a result, this process requires a lot of time and planning, and so artists, agents, promoters, and presenting organizations typically plan far in advance to possibly ensure that a foreign artist will be able to appear on a specific date.
But even careful planning might not be enough. That’s because even though the law instructs that the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) process these petitions within 14 days, since 2001, standard processing “has varied unpredictably from 30 days to more than 120 days.”
O and P visa applications are processed in one two different offices—one in Vermont, and one in California—depending on performance locations and/or the address of the petitioner (usually a presenting organization, manager, or agent that’s acting as your advocate in the application process); despite promised improvements, performance is inconsistent; the Vermont office has a particularly lousy track record at meeting its own deadlines, and heightened security measures (such as those following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in France) can add to the unexpected delays and backlogs.
Artists or presenters can pay for expedited “premium” processing and move their application to the front of the line. But that costs $1225—a very steep cost, given how economically precarious live music can be in the first place. It’s not surprising that tour dates get cancelled, resulting in lost income for artists, promoters, and presenters, as well as frustrated music fans. The economic hit extends to domestic performers as well; American musicians who were scheduled to work along international guests.
How big a problem is this? Just in the last year, for example, British metal band Cradle of Filth cancelled four U.S. dates, while Norwegian metal band Taake had to cancel their entire fall tour due to delayed visas. The Swingle Sisters cancelled their entire Christmas themed tour, Australian pop duo The Veronicas were forced to axe seven dates in the U.S. while guitar virtuoso King Sunny Ade had to cancel high-profile gigs, including a performance at Wilco’s Solid Sound festival. Without legislative help, there’s no end in sight.
A typical example is the Spanish band Hinds. As Consequence of Sound reported last year:
The band planned a tour around SXSW last year and began the process four months before it started, one that cost them around $15,000. Despite the advance notice, their passports didn’t come in time, forcing them to cancel their first flight to New York, miss a show at Baby’s All Right, and nix a day of planned press in the city. They later lost 2,500 Euros to book new flights, with an additional 2,500 Euros sunk into flights related to rescheduling the missed dates. Waiting in Madrid for an answer, the band had no idea when their visas would arrive.”
A legislative fix for this bureacratic failure is long overdue, and the Arts Require Timely Service (ARTS) Act of 2016 may be just what we need to make obtaining visas for foreign performers more efficient and predictable, Reintroduced last month by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), this bill would hold the Department of Homeland Security to a reasonable turnaround time. If DHS misses that deadline, the bill would automatically grant the premium processing expedited treatment to any nonprofit arts-related O and P visa petitions, free of additional charge.
The bill enjoys bipartisan support; previous versions were included in the Senate’s comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, and a standalone version passed in the house in 2008. That gives us hope that despite congressional gridlock, we might still see some forward motion.
As Senator Hatch stated, “all Americans benefit from greater access to the world’s best performers and artists. However, because of unreliable visa processing delays,many of our nonprofit arts organizations risk financial harm if they are unable to present artists as planned. This bill is a commonsense effort to simplify that process and I hope that it will move quickly to the President’s desk.”
Granted, the ARTS Act isn’t a silver bullet solution. It will be most helpful to international performers working with a non-profit presenting organization. Performers whose petitions are submitted by booking agents, managers, or for-profit concert promoters don’t get the full benefit of automatically expedited process.
Nonetheless, it’s a substantial step in the right direction. To enjoy the cultural, diplomatic, and economic benefits of music. all corners of the globe must be able to share their creative work. That’s why the ARTS Act is supported by music and arts groups like American Federation of Musicians, Performing Arts Alliance, Americans For the Arts, The Recording Academy, and many more.
The ARTS Act has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee; now’s a great time to ask your Senators to co-sponsor the Act.
And for a comprehensive resource for international artists trying to legally tour the US, check out Artists From Abroad.
Image via shutterstock.com