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SXSW Artists From Overseas Met With Red Tape and Hard Choices: ‘It’s Really a Hail Mary’

Artists en route to Austin have had to take countless COVID tests and endure visa headaches. Some have even had to leave band members behind.

To get to Austin, Texas, from his home in Seoul, South Korea, this week, Zee, the synth player for K-pop group Adoy, has had to report a negative test, procure an expensive visa, monitor the rapidly changing COVID-19 regulations for both the U.S. and Korea and will need to quarantine for seven days once he returns home. And because international travel is so complicated and expensive these days, Adoy can only afford a small crew for the trip, rather than the nine people the band usually tours with. Still, he says, it’s worth it.

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Surreally, due to COVID-19 restrictions in South Korea, it is currently illegal for fans to cheer at concerts. “It’s really eerie. It seems like a classical concert, where the audience can only clap,” says Zee, who performs with Adoy for a South by Southwest showcase this week. “It’s been two years since we heard a cheering crowd. It’s one of our goals. We’re willing to sacrifice.”

SXSW, the 35-year-old music festival that provides showcases for hundreds of up-and-coming bands throughout Austin, returns March 17 after abruptly canceling at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020 and going virtual in 2021. As always, the acts on this year’s schedule are from all over the world, from South Korea to Europe to South America to Australia. But in 2022, health regulations have turned international artists’ travel plans into a complex puzzle of visa requirements, lengthy delays, costly airfare, rapid-test schedules and red tape.

“Moving six people around out of your home country at any point is a stressful and logistical nightmare. Then you add people having been recovered from COVID,” says Sian Walden, manager of the Wanderers, an Adelaide, Australia, pop duo showcasing at SXSW. “Things are changing rapidly. One thing I was sure of a week ago, I’m not exactly sure will be the case when we fly.”

Ximbo, a veteran Mexico City singer and rapper, usually tours with a crew of 10 and a large band, but she has had to downsize her Austin entourage to just herself and a DJ, due to vaccine and visa complications. Mexico has administered vaccines that the U.S. does not accept, and while Ximbo herself meets the standards and has a visa, it’s difficult for a larger crew. “South by Southwest is not an easy thing to do. You have to have money and be a privileged musician, and if you talk about the Third World, it’s not easy to do it,” she says. “I’m confident right now we can make it work.”

Many international SXSW artists are similarly downsizing, some going so far as to hire Austin-area musicians to cover parts usually performed by regional collaborators. Moonchild Sanelly, a South African singer, plans to arrive in Austin, then rehearse for a day with a DJ provided by the conference before doing her showcase. She hoped to buttress the Austin performance with tour dates throughout the U.S., but South Africa’s embassy has a backlog of visa requests and Sanelly was unable to expand her travel documents to include longer-term U.S. employment.

“We’re putting the pieces together,” says Lauren Roth de Wolf, Sanelly’s London-based manager. “It’s been a challenging time.”

Whether international artists playing SXSW showcases have a labyrinthine journey to Austin or a smooth experience depends on geographical circumstance. W.I.T.C.H., a veteran Zambian rock band, has “very good lawyers,” according to manager Gio Arlotta, and procured visas quickly, booking the SXSW showcase as part of a 20-day U.S. tour, sharing instruments and production equipment with American bands on the bill. “It’s not been as difficult as I imagined it would be,” he says. And Jack Gray, an Australian singer-songwriter, has been living in Los Angeles for months, on a visa travel extension that extends through SXSW. “He’s performing solo,” says Jim Sabey, his manager. “We’ve made it financially viable for him to do it.”

By contrast, in Ghana, procuring a visa for U.S. travel during the COVID era is cumbersome and frustrating: Fingers crossed,” Terah “TeeMo” Clottey, manager of Yung D3mz, who was scheduled to perform in Austin, said earlier this month. The singer had hoped to travel with a group of three to seven people, but the government denied their application for an emergency visa appointment. “We won’t be making it, unfortunately,” he says.

Even artists who’ve nailed down the logistics must contend with possible negative outcomes, such as a band member coming down with the virus last-minute. “You’re spending the money, and it could end up slapping you in the face,” says Simone Ubaldi, manager of Australian singer-songwriter Grace Cummings, who plans to travel with three people, then perform with an Austin musician she has never met. “It’s really a Hail Mary, cross your fingers and hope for the best.”

Sarpa Salpa, a British rock band, sold merch and albums to raise some of the roughly $8,000 it needs to travel to SXSW (which compensates bands $250, if they opt out of festival wristband access). The band’s six-person entourage, including a roadie and manager, must take COVID-19 tests 24 hours before their flights to the U.S., and even one positive test scuttles the plan.

“The whole thing’s a massive risk. We’re not going to be seeing anybody the week before, so nothing can go wrong. That’s the plan, anyway,” says Kev Bailey, the band’s manager. “But you’ve got to stick your neck out. If we don’t do this, we’ll never know.”