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Task Force Assembled to Address an Unequal Visa System for U.K. Musicians

Heathrow Airport
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Terminal 5 at Heathrow airport in London, England.

A music industry taskforce has been assembled to address the growing number of visa issues preventing up-and-coming British acts from playing in the U.S.

"In the past year, we’ve been told of numerous times of U.K. musicians traveling to the U.S., having gone through the visa application process, and then having that fail them, causing them to re-book flights, cancel shows and re-book tours. There is a real problem, in our view, with the current visa application process," Dave Webster, the U.K. Musicians Union's national organizer for live performance, tells Billboard.

The problems relate to two different entry processes. Unsigned musicians and performers who wish to travel to the States to perform at an industry showcase event such as New York’s CMJ Music Marathon or South by Southwest are able to do so under the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) visa waiver program, which requires only a nominal fee.

However, there is a very narrow and restrictive criteria that performers must meet in order to enter the country using an ESTA. To do so, artists have to be able to prove that they have an invite to perform at a specific showcase, that they will earn no fees while in the U.S. and will play no additional shows. Failure to comply with these restrictions will result in refused entry.

Of greater concern to artists and music industry organizations is the labyrinthine levels of red tape and prohibitive costs of attaining a work visa, a requirement for any international artist who wishes to make money performing in the States.

According to the U.K. Musicians Union, the cost of a four-piece band requiring work visas and petitions to play live shows in the U.S. can cost around £6,000 ($8,500) -- not including travel, accommodation or crew cost. In contrast, the cost for a four-piece American act to get the equivalent Tier 5 visa for the U.K. is just £900 ($1,200). Alternatively, they can buy a sponsored work permit just £84 ($120), which promoters have also used to bring acts into the U.K. to perform.

"It’s fair to say that roughly 50 percent of those invited to showcase at SXSW aren’t able to attend, partly due to the restrictive costs of visas," explains PRS for Music Foundation’s Joe Frankland. PRS for Music Foundation says that visa costs represent 18 percent of the total amount requested by applicants to its International Showcase Fund.

The problems are not just cost related, however. For unsigned artists without an experienced manager or touring infrastructure behind them, the complexities and ever-changing demands of the American visa application process can bar up-and-coming artists from traveling to the U.S to capitalize.    

"Europe and America are our biggest markets," says Jo Dipple, Chief Executive of umbrella trade organization U.K. Music, in a statement. "Having access to those markets is vital. The restrictions, cost and delays created by the current US visa system act as a barrier to trade."

In response, an industrywide ‘task force’ of musicians, managers, independent promoters and industry bodies has been established under the guidance of the Musicians Union and British Underground to specifically address visa issues. The group met for the first time in December and now consulting a wider industry group of musicians and managers to gauge their experiences and develop solutions.

"The goal is to have a better understanding of what happens in the United States Embassy in London, and to work with them to create more of a collaborative process and put some pressure on them to make it easier for our members and musicians to work in the U.S.," says Webster, who chairs the visa task force.  

"We’re looking for a little bit of reciprocity. Cultural exchange is hugely important, so it would be nice if British musicians were given the same treatment as American musicians," Webster adds. "In this time, when there are heightened concerns over terrorist activity, we understand that there are some difficulties with that, but we would like to have a pro-active dialogue about these issues."

The issue has also been debated in British parliament. Conservative MP Nigel Adams addressed the problem in Parliament in November of last year, a motion that was fully supported by all speakers in the debate. The U.K. Musicians Union has also written to British culture minister Ed Vaizey, proposing a meeting to further discuss the issue.

In the meantime, the U.K. Musicians Union and British Underground have produced a ‘guidance note’ intended to aid and advise independent and unsigned musicians wishing to travel to the US. The task force also aims to build a central online hub or portal where musicians can easily access information about the Visa Waiver Programme or ESTA.

"We’re trying to coordinate everybody’s understanding and experiences to make this process easier for all parties," explains Webster. "We very much hope that, out of those talks, we can make some progress."

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