Why Foreign Artists Are Freaking Out About SXSW

Is It Safe for International Artists to Play South by Southwest (SXSW)?

If you’re an international (non-US) artist with plans to travel to South by Southwest (SXSW), should you reconsider those plans?  A look at the potential dangers involved.

If you’re just catching up on this controversy, here’s the snapshot.  An indie band recently freaked out after reviewing their South-by-Southwest (SXSW) contract.  The band felt that language in the SXSW band agreement contained extreme and threatening language relating to US Immigration and foreign visas.

So, they pulled out.

‘SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. Immigration authorities…’

The suspect language starts at the bottom.  It (strongly) suggests that South by Southwest organizers will be reporting international artists to federal authorities.

SXSW responded.   They said that language has been in the boilerplate artist agreement for years.  And like many contracts, the language is designed to prevent extreme problems.

Roland Swenson, South by Southwest’s co-founder and CEO, called the blow-up a “misunderstanding of our policies regarding international artists.”  Here’s his statement to the Austin Chronicle.

“Language governing SXSW’s ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist performance agreement for many years.  It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.”

But then, he added this zinger.

“We understand that given the current political climate surrounding immigration, the language that was published seems strong.  Violating U.S. immigration law has always carried potentially severe consequences, and we would be remiss not to warn our participating acts of the likely repercussions.  We hope never to be put in the position to act on this.”

South by Southwest isn’t out to get you.  It’s a music festival in an extremely liberal pocket of Texas.  Roland doesn’t have any plans to round up foreign bands or anyone else attending from foreign countries.

In fact, Roland has spearheaded efforts to actively protect foreign artists.  They even have an army of lawyers ready to deal with situations as they arise.

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They’ve even said that out loud.  “[South by Southwest] is working hard to build a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at US ports of entry during the event,” Swenson told Stereogum. “We have artists from 62 countries from around the world performing and have always supported our international music community. We have never reported international showcasing artists to immigration authorities.”

This shit is bad for business and everything SXSW stands for.  And SXSW is doing what they can.  But at the same time, they’re also warning international artists to prepare for the worst.  Because SXSW’s lawyers can only do so much to help you.  You might get caught up.

If the US Immigration, the US Government, or any other agency (official or otherwise) starts some beef with you, you might be on our own.

Is SXSW going to fight for you if you are detained, arrested, or hassled?  Or will they be good boys and comply with whatever the State of Texas or United States demands of them?  Right now, we have no idea.  It really depends.

Keep in mind that FBI director James Comey will be doing a keynote interview at this event.  They’ll be massive security, on the ground and in the air.  People will be checked, monitored, even cross-examined.

The airport will be a high security zone.

Chaos isn’t your friend.

This isn’t a fun little music event anymore.  It’s a massive mega-festival with pervasive problems of violence and crime.  There have been major crowd control problems over the years.  Not to mention shootings and even high-speed police chases with dozen injured or killed.

I know, that’s not the ‘rah rah’ version of what SXSW is.  I’m supposed to write about showcases and great BBQ.  But the reality is that there will be a ton of cops —local, state and federal — crawling at this event to make sure shit stays under control.  And things sometimes get out of control.

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Is there a problem with your non-work visa?  Maybe there’s a detail that lots of traveling artists are unaware of.  Getting detained, busted, or otherwise harassed isn’t worth the risk.  Especially for something you can’t predict.

But maybe there isn’t any problem, outside your band being from outside US.  Will we hear about a band being detained in nearby Dallas, while missing their showcase over some nonsense?  Or maybe a band will be attacked outside of a showcase because of the way they look.  There’s a pretty decent chance.

Is that worth the risk?

Hey, if you still decide to go I understand.  I just don’t think it’s the right climate, or the right time to do it.  And I don’t think SXSW can protect you as much as they think they can.

That’s the United States right now.


Here’s some additional information on various visas, as well as SXSW FAQs on international travel:

1.4.1.(B Visa / ESTA) http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/business.html

1.4.2.(Work Visas) http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/en/employment/temporary.html

1.4.3.SXSW general visa FAQ: http://www.sxsw.com/travel/visa-faq

6 Responses

  1. music stowaway

    Frankly I don’t think all the hassle is worth it for a lot of bands/artists located outside of the US.

    Maybe the event should more to Spain where International artists won’t have all these headaches to deal with..

    • jollyroger

      What hassle? Immigration laws have not changed at all. Unless these artists jumped over the fence on the Mexican border, or waded ashore at night off a boat in the Gulf, there is nothing for anyone to worry about.

  2. music stowaway

    Here’s a good link on the subject
    http://www.m-magazine.co.uk/creators/advice-musicians-traveling-us/

    Here are some quotes from the above link..

    Entertainers who are normally compensated for performing are not classified as amateurs and thus will be unable to travel to the US under the VWP (Visa Waiver Program) to perform, even if they have agreed to perform in the US for free at a charity or private members event and do not solely make a living by performing.

    You may come across conflicting advice from those who suggest ‘risking it’ under the VWP. However, be aware that lying or omitting essential information about the purpose of your trip to the US will likely constitute fraud or misrepresentation and can have potentially serious consequences, including being barred from the US indefinitely. The US government gives relatively clear advice on eligibility for the VWP, so it is well worth establishing the appropriate route for you well in advance of travel and following it.

    So the advise to any foreign bands/artists wanting to visit the US and appear/perform
    at events – have the right paperwork in check and don’t try to sneak in on a tourist visa.

  3. Eric

    How dare you suggest there’s any significant “risk” to international bands attending SXSW, and that they should think twice about coming! Of course they should come! The likelihood of an international band experiencing any serious problems with immigration is nil, and all you are accomplishing here is fear mongering and click baiting. The only possible outcome of your article is that you drive international bands cancel their trips to SXSW over nothing. Ridiculous.

    To all of those international bands who read this article, you should know that both the music community and the vast majority of this country welcome you with open arms and look forward to you sharing your talents with us.

  4. D Max

    The opinion you express in your article is jarring at least and terrifying at most. I don’t agree with you but the sheer thought that you could hold such an opinion says a lot about how absolutely insane the current climate has become.