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Visa fees for international artists to tour in the US shot up 250% in April. It could be devastating

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LA Post: Visa fees for international artists to tour in the US shot up 250% in April. It could be devastating
April 16, 2024
MARIA SHERMAN - AP

NEW YORK (AP) — Performing in the U.S. for international artists just got a lot more complicated.

On April 1, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services instituted a 250% visa fee increase for global musicians hoping to tour in the U.S.

Artists, advocacy groups and immigration lawyers are concerned it could have devastating effects on emerging talent worldwide and local music economies in the U.S.

WHAT ARE THE COSTS?

If you're a musician from outside of the United States hoping to perform stateside and you filed visa paperwork before April 1, the cost per application was $460.

After that date? $1,615 to $1,655.

Bands and ensemble groups pay per performer. A standard rock band of four members went from paying $1,840 to around $6,460. And if you can't wait a few months for approval, add $2,805 per application for expedited processing.

If the application is not accepted, that money is not refunded — on top of losses from a canceled tour and missing out on “significant, potentially career-changing opportunities,” says Jen Jacobsen, executive director at The Artist Rights Alliance.

If a musician has support staff, a backing band or other employees to bring on the tour, these individuals need visas, too.

“Even if you’re Capitol Records and you have all the money in the world to throw at it, you still can’t get rid of U.S. bureaucracy,” says immigration attorney Gabriel Castro.

All international musicians require work authorization to perform in the U.S. There are few exemptions: Those are reserved for “showcases” through the Visa Waiver Program — like what is often used at South by Southwest, where international artists perform exclusively at official showcases, without pay and for exposure.

Currently, there are few hurdles for U.S. musicians looking to enter other countries for the specific purpose of earning money through live performances. According to Castro, American performers are able to enter most countries without a visa and under an exception to tourism rules.

WHAT'S THE IMPACT ON ARTISTS?

Gareth Paisey, singer of the independent, seven-piece Welsh band Los Campesinos!, will tour in the U.S. this June. The band made sure to apply for visas before the April 1 cut off, a difference of paying $3,220 or $11,305 in fees. Next time they have to get a visa, he says they'll likely try to squeeze two tours in one year — the length of their particular visa — to make up the cost.

He says the application process requires providing an itinerary for the full year and supplemental evidence: press clippings to justify their status as “career musicians,” and testimonials from people of note — often from more famous musicians.

“Nobody gets into a band because they've got a passion for making cash flow forecasts," he says. “It's unfair to expect people who are brilliant at writing songs to also be brilliant at filling out a 20-page visa application.”

After Brexit, he says touring in Europe for U.K. acts has become more complicated, but the U.S. process is by far the most complex — both in terms of paperwork and what it represents for music moving forward.

“This idea that you need to be a career musician to get a visa, and visa fees are going up, increases the idea that music is a competition,” says Paisey. “And part of that competition is making as much money as you can — like that’s the only valid way to participate in the music industry.”

WHY HAVE THE FEES JUMPED SO MUCH?

Two reasons: They hadn't in some time, and because immigration officials are scrutinizing the process more closely.

The last increase was in 2016, when fees grew from $325 to $460.

The U.S. government is "putting more and more burden on the application process,” says Castro of BAL Sports and Entertainment Practice, which specializes in visas for musicians, entertainers and athletes.

He says 20 years ago, applications were just two or three pages. Now, they're 15 or 20 pages.

“And those are just the forms before supporting evidence,” he says. “Now I’m submitting documents that are 200 pages, 300 pages long just to explain why this band should be traveling throughout the United States.”

Officials "might have done better to look at inefficiencies in the system to save money,” he says.

Paisey says he's heard that the increase will allow the USCIS to “get rid of the backlog... But is that because you’re going to employ more staff or is it probably because you’re going to get less applications?" he wonders, because it's going to benefit "people who can afford to go than rather than who wants to go or has the fan base to go.”

WHY HAVE THE APPLICATIONS CHANGED OVER TIME?

Castro says some of it is to account for “abuses in the system — to make sure that individuals that are coming here for certain activities actually have those activities in place," but the increased scrutiny is a lingering effect from Trump administration's immigration policies.

“The immigration process overall became more difficult for everyone. Whether you’re coming across the border, whether you’re coming here to perform at Madison Square Garden, whatever it is," he says. “That has changed the culture of U.S. immigrations agencies.”

WHO DOES THIS HARM?

Independent and emerging talent, as well as ensembles and groups.

Dua Lipa, the Rolling Stones, they're going to pay these fees. It's not even a rounding error. They could misplace $1,200 in their budgets and they wouldn’t even notice,” says Castro. “It's the indie rock bands, niche acts, jazz musicians from Japan who will be affected."

“Every dime counts. They have very small margins,” he adds.

“We’ve already got a problem with not enough musical acts breaking through to the next level,” Paisey says. “And this is going to stop them from getting that chance in the States.”

Touring in the U.S. is a pipe dream for many independent acts, he says, and it is in danger of “not even being a dream.”

Jacobsen points out that there will be ripple effects as well: Musicians, drivers, tour managers and beyond who would be hired to work with international talent will lose work, venues will lose fruitful bookings, festivals that focus on international talent will reduce in size, the costs of tickets could increase and so on.

She says these fee increases could affect U.S. music culture — “the richness of the music ecosystem in terms of diversity of genres.”

If lesser known, global genre artists cannot perform in the U.S., audiences will miss out on a critical cultural exchange. “We need the marketplace to be friendly and accessible to all those different types of musicians," she says.

WHAT'S NEXT?

“You're going to see a decrease in international acts coming to the United States,” says Castro. “And maybe it’s decreased frequency more than a decrease in the absolute number. We'll see less and less emerging artists.

“The harder you make it for them to come to the United States, the less you’re going to see them here.”

Local economies, too, will feel the result: “It's not just the mid-sized venue in Cleveland that will feel it, but the parking lot down the street, the restaurants and bars people go to before and after.”

And there could be long-term consequences that have yet to be seen. “There is an absolute concern that there would be a reciprocal effect," says Jacobson.

If the U.S. is making it increasingly difficult and expensive for musicians to come here, “Why wouldn't other countries do the same to our artists?”

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