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Musical Space

Musical Space: Artist Visas


A couple years ago I was playing in an opera production; a famous Hungarian singer was slated to star — except that his visa application was held up because of a backlog, he couldn’t legally fly to the states, and the company had to hire a last-minute substitute. This kind of thing has been happening lately to international musicians, authors, dancers and filmmakers wanting to present their art in the U.S. using a special visa, the same kind used by athletes to compete and scientists to present at conferences. The paperwork is cumbersome and the decisions can be arbitrary. For the sake of the arts and international relations the process needs to be streamlined.

As it stands now, hiring a foreign musician means sending the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service a $460 fee and a pile of documents: a signed contract, proof of “extraordinary ability” — meaning awards, reviews and sales figures — and a “consultation letter” from a peer group, which typically costs another 250 bucks. Processing time can take up to four months. Rule changes last year mean that the cost to expedite the form was raised to over $1400, and that the application can be denied without a reason. And as of June 1, they want five years of social media information.

Damo Suzuki's first U.S. tour in ten years was cancelled at the last minute this April due to visa issues.


Making music presenters take on all this risk can curtail business and silence unique voices. The arts are the front line of international goodwill, and if we want the U.S. to be taken seriously as a market for the arts, we’ll have to do better.

Listening list:

Peter and the Test Tube Babies, “Elvis is Dead,” Live broadcast - The Peel Sessions, BBC (1980). Discovered by John Peel, this broadcast began their career. Part of the “Punk Pathetique” subgenre because of their humorous and irreverent lyrics. Denied U.S. visas and deported in 2017.

Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens), “Boots and Sand” Roadsinger (2008). Recounts being deported from the U.S. in 2004 and featuring Paul McCartney and Dolly Parton.

Boreas Quartett Bremen, Sören Sieg: Simple Solution. Ixesha: African Suite No. 20 (2017), Fourth Movement. Denied visas in 2017 because USCIS said that they “weren’t renowned enough,” despite being invited to perform at the Boston Early Music Festival.

Lord Of The Lost “Doomsday Disco,” Empyrean (2016). German Dark Rock band, spent tens of thousands of dollars to prepare a tour with KMFDM, but was denied visas without being given a reason.

Skepta, Konnichiwa, Konnichiwa, (2016). One of the most important grime artists (grime is a form of electronic music in the UK, the "most significant musical development within the UK for decades"). This album was awarded the Mercury Prize in 2016.