SXSW 2017 might be over, but the controversy it left in its wake lingers. This year, a polemic debate erupted after a Brooklyn artist named Felix Walworth proclaimed on Twitter that they would no longer be performing at the festival due to a deportation clause in SXSW’s performance agreements. It was a group of U.S.-based artists who protested the language, which has been in its current form since at least 2013. Their petition for SXSW to have the clause removed was ultimately successful, the irony of which is not lost on artists who’ve already been dealing with its repercussions. “The thing is, when I played the festival, the current administration wasn’t in power, and the issue already existed,” says Algodón Egipcio, a Venezuelan artist who performed at SXSW 2016. “Today’s sociopolitical dynamics made it rise to people’s attention, and that’s a good thing.”
It’s tempting to blame all the recent drama on Drumpf, but traveling to the U.S. to perform at SXSW has always been a risky proposition for international artists. First and foremost, the risk is financial. Despite the millions in corporate cash flowing into Austin, Texas, every March, SXSW pays artists a small stipend, which they forgo if they want a wristband to attend the rest of the festival. So if your band isn’t able to capitalize on its official appearances, it could represent thousands of dollars of waste. And while that “showcase” system of unpaid performances allows artists to play in the U.S. without a P-1 visa, enforcement of the Visa Waiver Program is ultimately up to the discretion of Customs and Border Patrol agents. This year, several artists learned firsthand just how easily that discretion could derail their SXSW, their tours, and potentially their ability to secure visas in the future, as at least 11 musicians were turned away at the border.
The controversy raises questions about SXSW’s promise of exposure, given the significant financial and resource investment of international artists. Even without the threat of deportation, there’s plenty of risk involved for an international artist to perform at SXSW — it’s quite possible to spend thousands of dollars in travel expenses just to play two sets that might not yield any tangible benefit.
So with all the inherent risks, is it still worth it to travel from outside the U.S. to perform at SXSW? In short: It depends. Most of the artists we spoke with on record had secured visas for previous tours or trips to the U.S; one who admitted they had an unauthorized tour on a tourist visa understandably chose to remain anonymous. But having a visa to allow for legal work in the U.S. doesn’t do anything for bands trying to play unofficial SXSW shows; the contract they sign to participate in the festival specifically prevents them from doing so. The clauses related to deportation and communication with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Patrol could be interpreted as an extension of exclusivity, a show of force to discourage bands from playing other events in Austin during the festival. As the contract reads:
“If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that adversely impacts the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:
2.1. Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase and, at SXSW’s sole discretion, replaced.
2.2. Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.
2.3. Artist’s credentials will be canceled.
2.4. SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.
International Artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or unofficial shows, DAY OR NIGHT, in Austin from March 10-19, 2017. Accepting and performing at unofficial events (including unofficial events aside from SXSW Music dates during their visit to the United States) may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry.”
“I felt the language in the contract was harsh, like a deportation threat.” -Algodón Egipcio
While the language is certainly disconcerting, the lawyers who drew up the contracts were stating all of the options legally available to them to protect their product, a massive event with dozens of corporate mega-sponsors. Matthew Covey, an attorney who specializes in securing visas for foreign artists, told SPIN that the language isn’t necessary to protect SXSW from liability; he suspects the festival is likely projecting a strong stance against abuse to prevent a crackdown from CBP on the festival’s liberal use of the Visa Waiver Program to bring in international artists without P-1 visas.
If it sounds morally abhorrent, well, such is capitalism, a system where the only morality is profit. But there’s something particularly odious about these fear-mongering tactics when they’re aimed at independent artists just trying to get their music heard and catch a break, especially in a political climate that has elected officials at the highest levels of government openly stoking anti-immigrant sentiment.
“It was terrifying, for real,” Egipcio says. “Naturally, my idea of traveling to Austin and doing SXSW was to squeeze the hell out of the trip, in terms of playing shows, because it involves a significant monetary investment. The festival only allowed me to play two official showcases, even though I was offered more than that, so facing the decision of whether playing unofficial events had me on the verge of a nervous breakdown, precisely because I felt the language in the contract was harsh, like a deportation threat.”
With all the risk and financial investment, how can a small indie band from outside the U.S. make SXSW work?
Chile’s Trementina are a prime example of why Egipcio was so terrified — the band was notified by email just days before they were set to depart for a short U.S. tour centered around SXSW that they would not be allowed entry into the U.S. Their friends in Miss Garrison narrowly avoided that fate last year, likely in part because one of their reps made them pull their tour flyer off Facebook, just in case CBP thought to look. “When we were going to SXSW, they had told us that if they found out we were playing other shows, you were gonna be sent back,” says Miss Garrison’s Rodrigo De La Rivera. “And we had other shows. They weren’t paid, but they wouldn’t believe us, and we could have been deported anywhere. So on the border and in the airports we were quite nervous, we had to say we were only going to SXSW and everything. But I thought that was something routine bands do, they say they’re not going to play, and they go anyway and do the thing very quietly.”
So with all the risk and financial investment, how can a small indie band from outside the U.S. make SXSW work? For some, the first step is their home country’s federal government. Miss Garrison (Chile), Lulacruza (Argentina), and The Parrots (Spain) have all leveraged sponsorship from their home governments to help finance the significant travel costs to get to Austin. Many book legal tours in Mexico to supplement the free shows in Texas; The Parrots will often play shows in Spain with the express purpose of funding international travels. But some still weigh the need to maximize their investment by playing as many shows as possible — official or unofficial — against the risk of getting caught. When the noise is so thick (the 2016 edition featured 2,200 artists from 67 countries), it can feel like you’ve got to do everything you can to stand out.
For one artist from Venezuela who chose to remain anonymous, the decision hinged on each artist’s individual situation. “If you’re coming from another country you’re going to try to make the best of it…because clearly this exposes you to a lot of things that you don’t have access to in other places,” they said. “And for me, I’ve always played side shows, shows that I don’t get paid for but there’s always been a side component. For little artists that are making a huge effort, if you don’t play as many times as you possibly can, there’s so much shit going on at SXSW that the chances of you getting seen are very, very small…I guess it becomes a very individual decision for people coming in and seeing what opportunities they have, under what conditions, and to assess if that’s really worth it.”
Compounding the risk is the fact that even for artists who are lucky enough to catch a break at SXSW, it often comes through dogged perseverance, coming back year after year to develop relationships and make impressions. De La Rivera says “it’s a fantasy” that an artist will get signed right after a killer set by some industry fat cat; it’s the long-term investment that makes it worth it. And for The Parrots, that’s certainly how it panned out. The Madrid garage rockers scored their first record deal with Heavenly at last year’s festival, and the band’s singer-guitarist Diego Garcia says it’s because of the impression they made on the label when they played the festival two years prior. “They were very excited about us because they saw us there,” he says. “That would never happen if we didn’t go to SXSW, if we hadn’t taken the risk to go there, making no money.”
When we asked these artists if they felt it was worth the risk to travel to Austin to play the festival, the answers were varied. Egipcio seemed resigned to musicians making sacrifices for opportunities, and the fear tactics seemed to be an effective deterrent from breaking the rules. “If you stick to the festival’s boundaries, you have nothing to worry about,” he says. “I find the contract language traumatic, to say the least, and it did make me second-guess my participation.” Lulacruza’s Luis Maurette didn’t hesitate to say “No” when we asked if he would consider applying again. “It’s just a lot of expenses that I don’t know if you recover,” he says. “So if they offer me a showcase and they want me to play and there’s some sort of incentive or I’m on tour, I think I would go again. But I wouldn’t pursue it.” With a five-year record deal in hand, The Parrots’ goal at this year’s fest was to try to set up a legit U.S. tour, and Garcia hopes it takes them through Austin in March, since it’s the only time he gets to see a lot of his friends in the States.
For a documented U.S. band, looping a tour through Texas represents a manageable risk; it’s a smaller financial investment, and if they get caught playing unofficial shows, the only thing they jeopardize is their relationship with SXSW — they won’t be deported. But for a baby band outside the U.S., a successful SXSW often requires a lot of help: sponsorship from the government, pre-existing relationships with labels, promoters, and publicists, or even the festival organizers themselves. Those relationships can be the difference between leaving Austin broke with no prospects and flying home high off the new record deal you just signed. Despite the obstacles for international bands at SXSW, it’s still a place where dreams can come true…just not that many of them.
Additional reporting by Remezcla contributor Sara Skolnick.