In a time when global cultural exchange is of increasing importance culturally and economically, musicians of all types -- from household names to up-and-coming acts -- are finding it more difficult,
John Smith is the general secretary of the British Musicians' Union and president of FIM, the International Federation of Musicians.
In a time when global cultural exchange is of increasing importance culturally and economically, musicians of all types -- from household names to up-and-coming acts -- are finding it more difficult, time-consuming and expensive to gain access to America, the world's leading music market.
When the regulations that now govern the provision of work authorizations and visas for musicians visiting the United States first took effect in 1992, they received a relatively warm welcome, and although the U.S. government bureau responsible for their operation (now known as USCIS) was not always able to meet its own 15-day time limit to approve, decline or request more information on an application, the systems generally worked well.
The problems musicians currently face, with delays of up to six months, did not begin until 2001 but were not -- contrary to what many think -- a result of post-Sept. 11, 2001, security measures.
Musicians started to encounter major problems and delays in June 2001, when USCIS put in place its "Premium Processing Service." This was intended to assist large corporations and others that wished to transfer executive staff to positions in their American operations. The service guaranteed them a 15-day turnaround on applications in return for the payment of $1,000 per application, on top of the standard processing fees.
Almost overnight, the average waiting time for visas processed under the standard system crept up from three to six weeks to the current three to six months, posing significant difficulties for agents, venues, promoters and labels wishing to bring musicians to the States but unwilling or unable to pay the additional fees.
Add to this the understandable introduction of new security measures after Sept. 11, coupled with the more vigorous enforcement of existing ones -- such as the requirement, since August 2004, that all applicants attend an interview at a U.S. Consulate in their resident country every time they are due to visit the States -- and you end up with a system that is failing musicians, audiences and those whose businesses depend on them.
In bringing these difficulties to the attention of the U.S. government, we have been greeted by genuine surprise and concern that a system that was intended to promote cultural exchange and international trade is in fact proving a bar to those aims.
Indeed, we are grateful to members of Congress -- particularly Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee -- for their efforts in urging USCIS to adopt reforms to improve visa processing times.
Sadly, these efforts have yet to deliver any noticeable improvement.
I therefore believe that we should be working with all concerned parties to achieve more efficient administration of the current system and legislative change that meets security concerns while reflecting the needs and modus operandi of visiting musicians and the countless U.S. record labels, promoters, venues and festival organizers that rely upon them.
In doing this we would not be seeking preferential treatment for musicians; rather, we would be hoping to see them treated in the same manner as others working in similar fields.
Professional footballers, golfers, jockeys, racing drivers and tennis players -- to name a few -- all benefit from U.S. entry under the far simpler and cheaper business (B-1) visa, or even visa-free, provided their income is principally earned outside the United States. Such options do not generally exist for musicians.
The system for American musicians wishing to tour or take advantage of promotional opportunities in the United Kingdom is much more straightforward, simply requiring them to demonstrate that they have an established reputation in their field (normally confirmed by press and publicity materials) and that the promotional opportunities are bona fide.
In the United Kingdom, we have the active support of the Culture and Trade Ministries, plus the wholehearted backing of the cross-industry Music Business Forum. In the States, we are encouraged by the efforts of the American Symphony Orchestral League and are delighted that our U.S. counterpart group, the American Federation of Musicians, supports our efforts.
I have no doubt that we will enjoy the backing of, among others, the international and U.S. record and concert industries, in our efforts to work with the U.S. government on a modern, efficient, secure and future-proof system that will deliver significant economic and cultural benefits to all concerned.