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The USA is a notoriously difficult place to tour for international artists — from the difficulty and unpredictability of having to apply for visas, to being subject to intense questioning from TSA and customs officials for traveling with instruments, to the simple fact that US promoters can rarely guarantee the same level of payment many artists expect when playing in their home countries. It is for these reasons that the United States has been seriously lacking in international live music in the last 15 years.
We do actually have a wonderfully diverse and well-rounded domestic live music industry here in the US, so it’s easy to think that the appearance of more foreign artists might not make that big of a difference. But it’s particularly disheartening when we consider the millions of international immigrants and ethnically diverse families living in the US who almost never have the opportunity to witness their favorite artists from their home countries perform. And then there are all the fabulous Canadian bands you had just come to assume were American, and thought it was just chance that they’d never performed live in your town.
However, all that might change, albeit partially, if one or both of the acts that have recently been introduced to the Senate and House Judiciary Committees are brought to Congress to be enacted. These are just entering the beginning stages of this complicated process, yet they both have delightfully garnered bipartisan support.
Here’s a short introduction to S2510: Arts Require Timely Service Act of 2016 (otherwise known as the “ARTS Act of 2016”), which would help international artists with timely visa processing, and HR4823: Bringing Entertainment Artists to the States Act of 2016 (otherwise known as the “BEATS Act of 2016”), which proposes to loosen the visa requirements for Canadian entertainers, specifically.
ARTS Act of 2016
While it is possible for foreign artists to enter the United States on a variety of visa levels, including not needing one at all, the majority of internationals need to apply for either an O or P class visa to be able to legally travel to the US and earn money. The United States Customs and Immigration Services (USCIS) understands that not all visiting artists are renowned enough to tour and earn a living, so these categories are typically reserved for career artists who are able to hire management teams who produce contracts and documents pertaining to details of their tour, book dates and locations, and estimate payroll figures. But that means these visas take a lot of planning in the application stage, and could take weeks, if not months, to process.
Technically, the law requires the USCIS to process these applications within a 14-day period, but due to heightened national security since 2001, processing times are more likely to take between 30 and 120 days. And this often leaves many touring artists without a clear understanding of whether they’ll be able to make their flight or not. Currently, artists and presenters can apply for what is known as “Premium Processing,” guaranteeing their application will be moved up the line quickly, but this costs a whopping $1,225, which is a huge added expense for a smaller act.
Given the existing process, it’s clear to see why so many international artists have to cancel and reschedule their tours. Bands like Cradle of Filth (UK), King Sunny Ade (Nigeria), Vesperia (Canada), The Swingle Sisters (France), The Ocean (Germany), and Hinds (Spain) all had to cancel tour dates in the US due to visa issues in the last year alone.
This is where the ARTS Act comes in. Introduced in February by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), this bill would hold the Department of Homeland Security and USCIS to their predetermined turnaround time. And if DHS misses that deadline, the bill would automatically grant premium processing expedited treatment to any nonprofit arts-related O and P visa petitions, free of additional charge.
BEATS Act of 2016
This one is a bit more specific to our brethren to the north — Canadians — but it rings very similar in its approach to provide more opportunities for international artists to perform stateside. The BEATS Act was introduced into the House Judiciary Committee in March by Representatives Dave Trott (R-Michigan), Chris Collins (D-New York) and Peter Welch (D-Vermont) in order to speed up the process of obtaining a P-2 visa for Canadian musicians.
Currently, touring musicians must acquire a petition from a US-based arts organization (venue, promoter, agency, etc.) before obtaining a visa, and this needs to be done by mail. Since these applications are also subject to unexpected delays, the BEATS Act seeks to restructure this process so that touring musicians from Canada can apply in person at any Class A port or entry (a border location) with an immigration officer, or at a pre-clearance station at any Canadian airport. One would just need to have the required documentation signed by the petitioner handy.
A second alteration to the P-2 visa process proposed in the BEATS Act is to loosen the regulations around date and location changes in the tour once the original petition is filed. If a band sells out a show and wants to add another date to their tour, after the visa application has been filed, this should be allowed without having to go through the process again.
According to Nicole Daley of the Future of Music Coalition, the BEATS Act follows the recent progressive steps that Canada has taken domestically to increase cultural and entertainment exchanges by dropping the expensive new work permit regulations aimed at non-Canadian touring artists. The ripple effect of heightened fees made it difficult for touring artists to perform in Canada, which ostensibly hurt local entertainment economies.
As we’re all well aware by now, Canada’s new Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has recently replaced the longstanding Conservative majority government, and he has already begun re-implementing policies to expand arts opportunities nationwide. One such move is to reallocate nearly $1.9 billion towards additional annual cultural funding, literally doubling the Canadian Council of the Arts’ budget by the year 2020. Maybe we’ll get lucky one day and congress will introduce an act to mirror that as well!