Tales of musicians from nations like Syria and Cuba being kept at bay by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (formerly the INS) have become commonplace since 9-11. But European and Canadian musicians, too, are finding the consular walls unmanageably high.
Veteran U.K. anarcho-punks Subhumans, who finally landed a gig at B.B. King Blues Club July 19, had been successfully touring America since the early 1980s when they applied for new visas last July, assuming they were leaving more than enough time to get their paperwork in order for their scheduled tour of the U.S. that autumn. But when the U.S. embassy in London still hadn’t processed their documents by mid October, Subhumans had to call off the first half-dozen of their stateside shows and then rebook an expensive set of last-minute (and non-refundable) plane tickets.
No wonder so many acts are now looking to other shores. Part of the reason is purely financial: Filing fees, travel to the local consulate, legal help, and what Ian Smith of the U.K.’s Musicians’ Union calls “the thousand-dollar bribe” for premium processing can quickly add up to two grand per head. And even then there’s no guarantee of getting a visa, which itself is no guarantee of getting in: The border officer at the point of entry makes that call. Figure in up-front costs for promotion and advertising, and it soon becomes untenable for some musicians to continue playing here.
At least the USCIS steers clear of any obvious political or musical profiling: No-gos hail from all genres, with metal from Canada (Cryptopsy, Into Eternity) and Norwegian (Nightwish, Marduk, Entombed, Satyricon) perhaps the hardest hit. When the drummer for Swedish death metalers Dimmu Borgir revealed a decade-old conviction for bicycle theft, that was enough to get him bumped from their upcoming U.S. tour, in fear immigration officials would otherwise nix the whole band. “We couldn’t take the risk,” says their guitarist Silenoz.
Mainstream acts have had their troubles too: British pop groups including the Libertines and Cooper Temple Clause have tussled with the U.S. visa man, as have eastern acts like Czech avant-punkers Sunshine and Slovakian Beatles-tribute band the Backwards. Not even marquee names like Kylie, Sting, and Blur have proven immune. “We had a situation very recently where George Michael was asked to queue,” said Smith, of the Musicians’ Union, “but Grosvenor Square [site of the U.S. embassy in London] decided that it would be quite a good idea just to get him in through the back door.”
But smaller bands can’t always afford the premium-processing needed to open doors like that. Bill Bragin, director of Joe’s Pub, says that since the extra grand “can really make or break a tour,” some have decided to forgo the whole process. “A thousand dollars just isn’t worth it. They won’t make that money back.”
Phone calls to consular officials at $21 (15 euros) a pop don’t help either. Dutch guitarist Peter Visser of Holland’s indie-rock Bettie Serveert recently told a local music site he’d had to make seven of them for the band’s upcoming tour.
“It’s really harder now,” says Alix Madarasz, the French American manager of Parisian techno label F Com. “It just makes you feel you’re not really wanted in the U.S.” With visa procedures that sometimes require artists to produce bank, phone, or property records, she says, “some of the guys just don’t feel like going anymore.”
One of those guys is the label’s star DJ Laurent Garnier, who very publicly canceled a U.S. tour scheduled for March because of what he called on his website “completely unreasonable demands” that now make it “almost impossible for an artist to come and perform in the United States.”
And the strong euro makes ignoring the U.S. easier than ever. “We are dealing in a global market for the leading artists, whose schedules are completely full and who have the ability to choose among the many offers they have,” says Marc Scorca, president of the trade organization Opera America. “My concern is that they will choose not to come to the United Sates because it’s just too difficult.”
Some evidence indicates that’s already happening. CMJ showcase manager Chris White says his festival has definitely featured less foreign talent of late. When he started six years ago, he says, bands had “a willingness to do whatever it took to get over here.” But since the visa procedures have toughened up, he says, “They’re more willing to say, ‘We just won’t do this, never mind.’ If you can tour Europe without any hassle, certainly you’re gonna think twice about touring the States.”
British singer-songwriter Julian Dawson, for example, had breezed through the visa process for most of the 1990s—bolstered by a major record deal with BMG—until his luck ran out last year: His visa got held up and gigs were lost. Now, he says, “There’s very much the feeling, ‘Do I have to be known in Denver?’ And that’s a new feeling for me because I’ve focused very strongly actually on America. It’s a big place to crack, and I’ve put a lot of work into it. I’m very sad to let it go. But my feeling at the moment is that it’s being made next to impossible.”
And imbalanced. “It’s so easy for Americans to play in the U.K.,” he says. “Right now, England is awash with singer-songwriters from Austin and Tennessee and New York and Boston. It costs them 90 pounds,” he said. “It’s very unevenly weighted at the moment.”
To Smith, whose union has been among those lobbying the British government to redress the disparities, “It’s still a lot longer this end to the States than it is the States here. And if you have the wrong surname, and if your parents were born in the wrong country, there are still problems.”
Such visa snags can be “surreal and farcical,” says Davey Ray Moor, the Australian-Brit songwriter formerly with London-based Bacharach revivalists Cousteau. Moor happened to be born in Lebanon, where his father was stationed as an accountant for the U.N., and the Beirut label on the songwriter’s passport was enough to flag his 2002 visa application for six extra weeks of vetting. Worse, in the ’80s—”the ’80s being a rather pretentious time”—he’d changed his name from Moore to Moor: “I thought that taking the E off it would give it a whiff of mystery and intrigue, but it probably confirmed in the mind of some visa bureaucrat that I was kind of a sultry foreigner.” The hold-up meant he’d eventually miss Cousteau’s U.S. tour.
There are some signs of change, though. USCIS waiting times are gradually dropping, and up-to-date info is quickly posted to the agency’s site. The service center in Vermont, which handles all requests for the Northeast, now routinely processes visas in under a month—even in cases where the applicant opts not to pay extra for premium processing. “I’ve been doing this for seven or eight years, and it’s never been that fast,” says Matthew Covey of Tamizdat, an organization that helps foreign musicians sort out their paperwork. “They’re stricter, but there’s a much clearer sense of what they’re looking for. It used to be that it was a matter of how much you’d scream or cry or cajole. Now it’s a much more systematic process.”
Virginia-based immigration lawyer Jonathan Ginsburg agrees. “The U.S. consulates in general are doing their utmost to accommodate the arts, who really do get a degree of attention way out of proportion to the actual numbers involved.” When a rock star is delayed, he says, “you’re sure to read about it somewhere,” and those who lack bureaucratic finesse “are the ones normally who will get themselves in the most trouble, and who will respond in the most hysterical manner.”
Indeed, the “forced to cancel” mantra that accompanies many visa stories can ring false, with musicians sometimes playing the evil-empire card to cloak their own administrative failures. “Because the immigration service is faceless,” says Covey, “I know for a fact that they frequently take the fall for managerial fuck-ups. I could tick off five fairly high-profile cases right now that I know that’s exactly what happened.”
But he’s loath to name names. According to Nigel McCune of Britain’s Musicians’ Union, “the vast majority of artists who are relying on their career to take off in the States at some point are not really prepared to go on record about this,” in fear that “whenever their name is mentioned, some red light is gonna go off and say they’re the ones who were dissing the USCIS.”
(Originally published in The Village Voice in July 2005)