If Your Name's Not Down, You're Not Coming In: How Visa Policy Has Impacted the DJ Circuit

Berlin-based producer Shackleton recently made the news after his temporary US work visa application was denied. The British artist, who came to fame through the Skull Disco imprint, was due to play a Bunker party in New York, as well as Detroit’s Movement Festival. Shackleton is just another addition to the long list of DJs and performers who’ve had their nonimmigrant US artist visa applications denied. A list that also includes Marcel Dettmann, Ricardo Villlalobos, Paul Woolford, Roosevelt and many more. Surely, with so much money at stake, especially for those organising the events, turning away crowd pullers is detrimental to the US economy. So what’s going wrong? DJB talks to those involved to find out more.

Every year thousands of DJs from across the World apply for a nonimmigrant visa to perform in the USA. Normally they get invited to play a festival or a high profile club, but due to the cost of the flights the venue will suggest getting another couple of shows booked in – then one thing leads to another and it becomes a tour. The DJ then needs to apply for a work visa and provide an itinerary for the tour, press clippings, a discography, character reference and an invitation before an interview at their nearest U.S embassy can be arranged. If you think filling out an ESTA is hard, well, this is an ESTA on steroids.

Matthew Covey is the executive director at company called Tamizdat—a US artist services firm that assists professional performers in acquiring the appropriate work visa required for entering the States. “In 2010 denials were extraordinarily rare,” he told DJBroadcast. “That really has changed in the last year. We are regularly contacted by artists who would have normally been approved for a visa about a year ago and now we really have to council them, saying we don’t feel comfortable that they’ll be approved for the visa.”

"...In 2010 denials were extraordinarily rare. That really has changed in the last year...."

So what’s changed? In order to find out we spoke with several artists, booking agencies, and firms that assist in international working-visa acquisition. Many of the artists and agencies contacted for this article politely declined to be included due to fear of future reprisal by the US authorities and concern that it could affect any future visa applications.

Vladislav's Visa Delay
Sasu Ripatti, who records as Vladislav Delay was forced to cancel his US dates earlier this year, as his US working visa application took too long to process. Ripatti eventually got the visa two months after the scheduled performances were due to take place.

“It feels like they put everybody trying to get into the US into the same line and treat everyone as a suspect. But then again I have a feeling it very much depends on the individual processing each application.” Ripatti found the whole process invasive and humiliating. “It just shows how fucked up this system is. It's just ridiculous and laughable, but it also makes it difficult or sometimes impossible to go work in the US.”

Kate Lesta, creative director behind the US festival Communikey, also runs a sideline operation in assisting artists in applying for US visas. She was also responsible for booking Ripatti. When asked about the whole situation, she said, “It was literally as if someone had dropped the application behind a filing cabinet.”

Domestic Protectionism
For a booking agent nowadays, sending a DJ to the US has become a financial risk. It’s required, for the nonimmigration visa application, that the agent starts to arrange dates for the artist, but there is still no guarantee whether or not they will get the required working visa, or even gain access when they get to border-control. It already sounds like a Catch 22 situation.

"...It almost feels like the States
ask for this betrayal....”

One agent I spoke with (who asked not to be named) described the process as “a pain in the ass.” He remembers the time when he was crossing the US border and the agent told him that entering the USA was a ‘privilege,’ not a ‘right.’ “Paying $1,000 is really ridiculous; for that to be a gamble,” he stated. He suspects, it’s because of economic protectionist policies. As the electronic music scene grows in the US, maybe stricter border controls are there to protect the current crop of US artists. “Dubstep becomes popular, so rather than bringing established artists over, they have to use their own interpretation.” Is the Department of Homeland Security just out to protect its domestic dubstep?

Another (unnamed) agent explained how, more often than not, they send their artists over without a work visa. Made possible now because DJs no longer have to carry over bags of records for a performance. Instead they can turn up with a laptop or just a USB stick. “I send my artists officially as tourists whenever I can [because] the risk is just too high. It almost feels like the States ask for this betrayal.”

But other agents don’t advocate this method­­-- Alicia Bauer who heads the ESP Agency in London says “I wouldn’t take the risk with any of my artists. You can get a 10-year ban if you get turned away. They are on to DJs. All they have to do is Google someone’s name.” Bauer’s agency, which manages the bookings for dBridge, Calibre, Black Sun Empire, and others, has not had a work-visa application denied, yet.

Matthew Covey deals with thousands of clients every year. In a 2010 New York Times interview, he explained the most common reason for visa request denials was because artists did not give “sufficient lead time” for their requests to be processed. Since then, things have changed significantly.

Outlining the application process, Covey states that “when you’re applying you have to prove two things.” Firstly, “that the artist is famous enough—that they have extraordinary ability in their field.” He explained this leads to ambiguous, equivocal definitions, which can result in significant errors. “What we have found starting September 2013, but made significantly worse in February of this year, is that the way that the officers are interpreting the guidelines for “extraordinary ability” is now much stricter than what we’ve seen in the past.”

“The other thing that we have to prove is that the artist has some contractual work that necessitates them being in the US.” Whereas in the past the authorities have been pretty flexible with this, “since March they’ve been fairly reluctant to issue any visa to anyone who isn’t clearly contracted for any specific performances, and they’re not going to issue visas for any period longer than is required.” Taking the risk of only having a couple of shows booked in and waiting for venues to get back to you while you cool your heels is now a thing of the past.

Kate Lesta helped launch Communikey Festival in 2004 and has been working on visa applications since 2009. When discussing the officer’s interpretation, she stated that most don’t have the correct training to pass judgment on the contracted shows an artist has committed to.

“I don’t think they understand performing arts—it’s pretty obvious when we see these rebuttals that they don’t get that the Museum of Contemporary Art in Montreal is a renowned venue.” Not only does the officer maybe not understand the importance of a DJ to a given scene, but they also don’t understand that the venue is a legit and prominent place.

Overall both Covey and Lesta agree that poorly trained officers, alongside stricter enforcements of existing regulations that took effect  in March this year, are to blame for the change in atmosphere. “We have run into a handful of officers who misunderstand the law which has affected the artist’s request,” Covey details. “There are a number of officers who haven’t had enough training—that is a major problem.”

“...I don’t think they understand
performing arts..."

Changing Regulation Enforcements
Stricter regulation enforcements and new staff maybe the reasons behind the increase in failure of application, but what’s brought on this change? Kate Lesta believes the problem may lie south of the border. She fears that what’s happening might be a byproduct of stricter immigration practices with Mexico, intended to reduce the number of immigrants crossing the border, seeking residence. “I think the nonimmigrant side is being deeply affected by the immigrant policy, which is mostly about southern border politics.” Nonimmigrant work applications, she says, are for those not trying to move to the States permanently, as opposed to immigrant applications, which relate to green cards or residency permits.

“I don’t believe that these officers can really see the difference between all these different types of applications,” she explained. “And, it’s not just electronic music that’s dealing with this, it’s all forms of performing arts that is dealing with these problems.”

“There are now a bunch of officers who have been reviewing the applications completely differently, so there is an enormous amount of inconsistency,” Covey laments. “The main things we’re now seeing is sporadic interpretations of the rules, which is much stricter than we’ve [previously] seen, and a significant amount of inconsistency from one officer to another.”

Both Covey and Lesta agree there is a lack of consistency across all departmental boards, which is making the process even harder. “This system has become overly bureaucratised,” Lesta says with disgust. “It is so convoluted and such a mess. I got into this because I wanted to help people. Now I feel like a cog in a broken wheel and I feel that the system desperately needs a complete overhaul.”

Looking ahead?
The problem seems to come down to how the system works in a basic way. When departments expand and roles change, training and work expectations become convoluted by the clutter of bureaucratic nonsense. The US needs to adopt a consistent policy when it comes to nonimmigrant visa applications and ensure that all their agents have the required training and tools to ensure that they do their jobs correctly.

The knock-on effects of cancelling a tour are wide reaching. Not only does the artist lose their fee, it’s also unlikely he’ll be able to reschedule any new shows to replace those cancelled. The booking agent loses time, as well as money invested in arranging the shows. The promoter loses everything; time, publicity, initial fees that were paid to the agent and artist, venue and flight costs. The venues themselves also have to find last-minute acts to play, and ultimately, the fan won’t get to see their favourite act. For artists of caliber, it doesn’t seem right that Visa Services are failing everyone involved.

Covey is lobbying to have changes implemented to prevent further problems of this kind. Increased and stricter controls are “legal, and that’s fine,” he tells me. “But administrative errors need to be corrected.” As Lesta also states, “they are not discriminating—they are blindly discriminating. I would rather make my job obsolete and change the system for the better and I hope that we can make that happen.”

The French Connection
Before I end the conversation with Covey, he refers to the comments made by Laurent Garnier in 2005. Garnier cancelled his scheduled US tour because he had found the visa application process too intrusive. In a statement to the press he wrote:

“In order to obtain this new visa, the rules have once again changed since November 2004 and I would now have to not only fill out an exceedingly probing application form, but also be interviewed by a member of the Embassy staff, and provide proof of ownership of my house, details of my bank account, my mobile phone records, personal information on all my family members and more.”

I discussed this with Covey, and he explained that on occasion this does happen. “It’s rare that an artist from a developed nation is asked this,” he explained. Then he said that the US State Department always works on the assumption that all immigrant (and nonimmigrant) applications are made with the intent to gain permanent residency, and that this particular kind of procedure is reserved for those from less-developed countries.

"...Is it OK to ask Laurent Garnier
if he’s committed genocide?..."

“There’s also this form called the DS160 that everyone has to fill out before they get any US visa and it is a very invasive form,” he said, “asking from what school did you go to, parents names, have you ever committed genocide, have you ever been a prostitute—these sort of things. It’s an ethical question, should they be asking that? You don’t have to answer the questions, but they don’t have to give you the visa. Is it OK to ask Laurent Garnier if he’s committed genocide? There are certainly people out there who have, and the US State Department wants to know about that.”

Referring to Garnier’s tour cancellation, he says, “It’s the fans that are suffering.”, Covey compares the situation with that of Bruce Springsteen’s performance in East Germany in 1988. Do you think bureaucracy would have stopped The Boss from crossing the Berlin Wall to play to his adoring fans? “I find it difficult that people who take a political stance punish their fans. If you had the chance to perform in East Germany, wouldn’t you have?”

The only way forward is persistence. After all, Covey’s main goal is to encourage cultural exchange, regardless of the various goals of the US State Department.

Homeland Security may not be out to protect home grown dubstep, but tighter rules, lack of training and misunderstanding of popular culture is causing the recent increase of tour cancellations. This raises another question. How popular do you need to be to get a visa when you have a tour? Surely that you’re being booked by US promoters stipulates that you’re in demand?

Covey is right though, DJs still need to make those applications and take that gamble, because the fan is the one who makes the DJ. At least if the DJ tries, the repercussions of Border control are on the US and not on the DJ.