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A Special Relationship? Lancing The Rhetoric On US Visas For UK Artists
Andy Inglis , February 25th, 2016 09:49

As SXSW approaches and British artists look down the back of the sofa for coins to be able to afford to go, artist manager Andy Inglis looks at some of the facts, figures and myths behind the torrid time many of our acts have getting across the Atlantic to sing for Uncle Sam.

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The UK music industry is up in arms about the cost of Visas that enable artists and their crew to travel to the United States to play gigs. They've been up in arms for a while, and there are conversations going on between representatives of the Musicians' Union and US Homeland Security. I hope these conversations bear fruit, and that the cost of US Work Visas is greatly reduced.

Actually, that's not true.

I don't care.

I don't care because I don't think the costs are particularly high. Sure, the application process is a pain in the arse, as is getting up at five in the morning to get to the US Embassy for your appointment, and the waiting around, the nervousness brought about by the US Embassy just being a generally intimidating place, and the further waiting around for their answer, plus the fact that they retain your passport, which can cause problems for a number of reasons (I learned the hard way).

But paying £282.03 per year to work in the US isn't a lot of money.

I'm not getting a discount; that's what it costs me, my artist, and our FOH Engineer each. I've just read this page on the Musicians' Union website, and the following quote is startling:

"The cost of a four-piece band requiring work visas and petitions can cost in the region of £6000, and that's before any crew costs are also factored in."

I appreciate that sometimes radio or TV promo is lined up last-minute and YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO GO BECAUSE IT WILL BE THE THING THAT WILL CRACK THE MARKET. In this case, sure, you will pay a premium, and I've had to in the past. But figures of £5,000 and £6,000 are being thrown around as the norm, and putting the shits up artists and managers with reactionary comment in the absence of context doesn't help, and the MU should know better. Though when it comes to UK industry bodies arguing their cases, I should know better than to expect nuance.

The cost of a US Visa is expensive if you're not going to make any money on your tour, (and unless you're very, very lucky, you're not) but so is the cost of flights, accommodation, crew wages, and all your other outgoings, including those baggage trolleys at JFK ($6 each, non-refundable). And there's the small matter of Withholding Tax, where the promoter will keep 30% of your fee to pay to the IRS. Withholding Tax is a bastard if you can't find a way to reduce or offset it.

In November of 2015 I was asked to contribute to a Consequence of Sound article on the subject, which you can read here, and the journalist, David Sackllah, emailed me some questions on the issue. He wondered if I considered the Visa application process prohibitive. I said it depended on your level of determination. The application process isn't prohibitive at all if you really want to go. The Visa application result can be prohibitive. "Your Visa application has been denied" is a fairly prohibitive statement.

The application process is opaque and onerous (given a choice of the two, I'd rather see it changed than the cost reduced) but there are many things you can do to improve your chances of success:

  1. Be absolutely sure that going to the US is the right thing to do. I'm a total sucker for that country. I'm in thrall to the cinematic romance of it, of its mythology; the Pacific Highway, the colours of a New England autumn, the view from the Griffith Observatory. But that doesn't mean I should try and work there, when there are many thousands of bands who live there who no one will care about if they pitch up at The Casbah in San Diego on a Tuesday night, never mind one from the UK. I did it once and seven people turned up. We could choose to tour Eastern Europe instead, but let's be honest with ourselves; we're not driven by a longing to eat kalduny at a roadside cafe on the E95 between Belarus and the Ukraine in the same way we romanticise a pastrami sandwich in Katz's Deli, right?

  2. Be really, really sure. It's an enormous country, it's very far away, and it's the toughest market in the world to break. Your chances are incredibly small. Run a budget. If there's a deficit, how will you make it up? If you can, is it worth going? Is there enough interest in you there to justify it? You're a small business and like any small business you need to make smart decisions. You don't start making kids' toys and go from selling them to your neighbours to exporting them to Japan in enormous quantities within the first three months. Go to the US when you think there's a reason to go. Go when you can afford it, or when you can't afford not to. Why not tour Europe instead? It's closer, there are no visa costs and the production standards in their small venues are generally far better.

  3. Get expert advice. There are a few reputable visa agents, and a great many unreputable ones. Hire one that won't fuck you over.

  4. Prepare well in advance. Months in advance. You'll pay more for a 'premium service' if you leave it to the last minute, same as you will if you buy a train ticket from London to Glasgow on the day of travel. I appreciate that's not always possible. Bear in mind there's always a backlog around SXSW due to the volume of applications. Artists are allowed to play an official SXSW show without a visa, on the Visa Waiver program that SXSW have negotiated, but few UK bands are going want to spend thousands of pounds to fly in, play one show, then leave. Almost all want to do other shows in town and perhaps outside of Austin, to maximise their time there. US Immigration staff have got better at catching people. They can Google your band name and see your tour dates like anyone else.

  5. You'll need to present a very strong case. It's important to remember – and this seems to be totally lost on those who're arguing for a better deal – UK bands aren't being singled out by the US Government. There's no conspiracy against bands; bands are just people doing a job, like graphic designers, doctors and scaffolders, and like them, bands need to prove the work they do can't be done by a US national. Don't take it personally if your application is rejected.

  6. You should know that the burden of proof for a solo artist (like any solo worker doing any job) is higher than for a group. A solo artist has to convince US Immigration that they are 'extraordinarily talented". A group only needs to prove that it is "exceptionally talented". All need to prove that their talent has been sustained for an unspecified period of time, so the more print and online reviews and features you can produce to support your case, and the further back in time they stretch, the better your chances. And your chances will be further enhanced by letters of recommendation from prominent people in the music industry who can vouch for you, and your exceptional/extraordinary talent. Your visa agent will be able to advise you when your case is strong enough.

Here's what I paid for our recent O1 and O2 Visas. The O1 is for the artist, the O2s are for the supporting crew:

$2,900.00 for the US side
Includes Immigration Filing Fee, Union Advisory Fee and our Visa Agent's fee

£538.80 for the UK side
Includes Visa Processing Fee and Handling Charge
That's a bit on the high side, but I pay for peace of mind, and for a specific reason I'll tell you about if youemail me

£2,538.30 total, for three people, or £846.10 each. Our Visas are for three years, which means it costs each of us £282.03 to work in the US each year.

That's not expensive.

What is expensive, though, are flights.

I paid £2,405.85 for five flights for three people on one working trip, excluding excess baggage (London > US > London, plus two internals). £801.95 each. So it cost us almost three times the price of our Visas to get to the US to work in the first place, but I'm not sitting here wondering how I can lobby American Airlines for a reduction for artists and crew.

Now wait. That's not a fair comparison; American Airlines are a commercial enterprise. They're a company. They exist to make money. True, though once you see how much of the US Embassy in London is given over just to processing Visas, you'll appreciate that the US Government isn't doing this out of the goodness of their hearts either. Welcome to capitalism, the same capitalism we benefit from when we add a mark-up to our T-shirts at the merch stand. UK bands don't have any inherent right to play in the US and the US Government isn't obliged to make it easy for them to do so, any more than American Airlines are.

The arguments put forward by those angry at the perceived high costs, and what must appear to some like arbitrary application denials, seem to follow three paths:

It's not fair because we've no idea why it was denied

It's not fair because American bands can come to the UK for much less

It's not fair because something something special relationship something"

Let's take these in turn:

  1. Aye, fair enough. That must be hugely frustrating. Though if you haven't done your homework/taken good advice/left enough time, when you had the chance to, then I've no sympathy

  2. The comparison between US and UK Visas is a bogus one. In every commercially relevant sense there is no comparison between the UK and the US. The UK population is 64 million, the 
US is five times bigger at 320 million. The UK has cities with populations of over on million people, whereas the US has ten. We have five indoor arena venues here in the UK, whereas the US has 87 - seventeen times as many. You'll appreciate it's not easy to count the number of small venues in both territories, so I've used indoor arenas for ease of comparison. The US has five times as many people, is forty times bigger in area, has five times as many large cities and seventeen times as many arena venues. In every measurable way the earning potential for a successful touring band in the US is far higher than in the UK. A better comparison would be to compare the cost of a US and a European visa, if such a thing existed. Though continental Europe is twice as populous as the US, it's still a closer comparison to draw. The UK and US just aren't analogous markets at all. And while I'm drawing comparisons, US bands (and those from Canada, Australia and other mostly white former colonies) generally don't need work Visas to play in the UK. They only need Certificates Of Sponsorship which are entirely different things, and understandably priced very differently. I say "understandably" but a lot of people don't seem to grasp it. It's apples and oranges, but you go right ahead and call it apples and apples if it suits your rhetoric. And by the way, musicians from predominantly non-white countries most likely do need a visa to play in the UK... and a Certificate Of Sponsorship, all of which can cost them as much as UK bands pay for US visas, and which can be as arbitrarily denied.

  3. Winston Churchill has a lot to answer for. He first used the phrase "the special relationship" in 1944 and cemented its use in a speech in 1946. It's worth noting he had an American mother. Seventy years on, the UK and US work together as it suits them, and how it suits them changes with the weather, and I swear to God the Obama administration has more to think about than whether or not your band's going to get a knockback by Homeland Security at Austin–Bergstrom Airport in March this year. The Obama Administration doesn't give a shit about your band, any more than the Tory government gives a shit about that US band you read about on Pitchfork last week. It's safe to say that Churchill, Roosevelt and Truman didn't give a shit either.

You do your argument a disservice when you use a seventy-year-old quote about an extraordinarily complex political relationship in the aftermath of a world war as a means to justify your annoyance that your desire to play music in America isn't enthusiastically embraced by its lawmakers. You don't get to go to America because you thought you were meant to be best pals. You get to go because you met the criteria for a successful visa application. I've no reason to not salute those who're fighting to have the costs reduced, but I wish they'd expend as much energy on pushing through the Agent Of Change principle, getting the music industry to financially support the small venues it benefits from, and speaking up about the sexism, and gender and racial inequality that surrounds them.

With thanks to Emily Moore for research and debate

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Feb 25, 2016 11:19am

"£2,538.30 total, for three people" is quite expensive

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Feb 25, 2016 1:41pm

Its all very well getting an O1 visa for 3 years when you're a mercury prize nominated artist, but most 'smaller' bands would only be able get a 1 year visa initially. Which makes it more expensive.

The premium visa is often needed out of necessity, because in order to get a one year visa for a 'smaller' act you need to have dates confirmed. and its not very often tours are booked a year in advance at that level.

No US bands buy EU visas (at least none i've ever met), the only place they need one is the UK and they are $150. So pretty cheap in comparison.

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Feb 25, 2016 1:43pm

I don't think the US Government accepts a payment plan with instalments over the three years somehow.

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Scott
Feb 25, 2016 3:20pm

I got as far as "£282.03 per year to work in the US isn't a lot of money" before starting to type a sentence about some mythical 8000 piece orchestra who pay 14p a year to work in the US then giving up and having a wank instead.

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Bob Adcock
Feb 25, 2016 3:31pm

I'd just like to congratulate Andy Inglis for a well-written article which I enjoyed reading. I have retired from Tour Management since working with a handful of major acts who regularly toured America from 1967 (The Cream) - 2002 and the changes in aquiring US working visas has altered drastically in that time.

I had a succession of H1 working visas which lasted 10 years for multiple entries. Applying for artist visas was a formality which meant dropping off the passports at a US embassy and collecting them a couple of hours later (eased by using an embassy which wasn't London and therefore not so busy.)

Contrast that with the situation which applies today due to modern security issues.

However, although US visas were simplicity itself to obtain, the same could not be said for touring Europe, where before 1973 it was necessary to have a working visa for each individual European country plus frontier insurance for each vehicle and long waits at border crossings due to customs controls - and I mean at every border, eg France / Belgium / Germany etc !

Eastern European tours were even worse!

Touring Europe before the UK became part of the EU was a far bigger nightmare for UK touring crews than getting to the USA is today, believe me.

Finally, if anyone reading this is tempted to vote to leave the EU, be very careful what you wish for......

Finally, a tip for Andy Inglis: American Airlines have a specific department at their Dallas headquarters which deals with C.I.P.s (Commercially Important People) and if you can get yourself known to them, they have very favorable deals for bands who use AA a lot!

Happy touring all ! :-)

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Pierre
Feb 25, 2016 3:57pm

Thanks for this very informative article. I'm going to keep that one, print it and read it again before any occasion of touring in the USA (ah! if only, dream on : ) ) presents itself. The episode where the US embassy kept the passport got me thinking about possible alternatives to keep moving within Europe while waiting for the US embassy to issue the visa. As a French citizen, I have a national card, and I know that I can use that to travel in Europe instead of my passport. However, the UK doesn't have a national card but I thought a driving licence would be enough to travel within the Schengen area. if yes, that would be an easy solution to that kind of problem.

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Feb 25, 2016 5:20pm

Sorry little brother, everything is more expensive on your side of the pond.

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Charles Hodgson
Feb 25, 2016 6:21pm

Just pretend you're going on holiday and borrow instruments when you get there. I hate filling in "official" forms.
Anyhow, this is culture, not commerce - for most non-massive groups touring the States will cost money, not make money.
Who is this article-author guy anyway?
David Thomas was right. They should be fucking begging the current line-up of Pere Ubu to tour there. And removing the blue smarties.

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poltroon
Feb 26, 2016 4:51am

It's Not Fair 2 "The comparison between US and UK Visas is a bogus one' .

This is a bad argument. Yes, the US is a much larger market than the UK. But there are also proportionately fewer UK bands. The market: band ratio is likely to be (very roughly...) similar.

With all sorts of tariffs the principle is symmetry of treatment between the larger economy with more economic actors and smaller market with fewer. At least that's the case between friendly countries with open trade relationships.

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poltroon
Feb 26, 2016 4:56am

In reply to Bob Adcock:

You are SO right about the potential for Visa/permit nightmares in Europe if we leave the EU. Most people seem to take freedom of movement and the legal right to work in any EU country for granted. It isn't the norm, it is a huge freedom that we have by being EU members.

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Feb 26, 2016 12:34pm

I can't believe TQ have published this trash.

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Paul
Feb 26, 2016 1:53pm

Mr. Inglis has been touting this misinformation for some time now. I'm really surprised that a website as good as the Quietus has given him a platform. It certainly does not cost 282 pounds to tour the USA - that's a total fabrication. Articles like this will make a very difficult campaign fought by the likes of John Robb at Louder Than War much harder to fight. (Great article here on the realities of visas and touring http://louderthanwar.com/are-these-the-last-days-of-british-bands-touring-america/)

Visas to the USA are stupidly expensive.

1. It may cost 2/300 per person but you have to pay a US visa company to petition your visa for you- it can cost up to 2 grand and then you have to pay a UK visa company to send your visa to the US embassy and book your appointment for you at the American embassy - that can cost up to another 1000 pounds.
2. Then you have to bring the whole band down to London for the meeting at the American embassy - that can cost a 5 piece band 80 plus pounds each in train fares and then because your meeting is at 8 in the morning you will have to come the night before - add hotel costs to the bill.
3. Then the US embassy will fuck up your application and you will get your visas back a week into your tour meaning you have to cancel flights and dates - this is not a random occurrence - this happens all the time. There is a huge list of bands who have been messed around like this and they will not be happy about this article belittling their genuine difficulties and high costs for such a random system.
4. To rub salt into the wounds it costs American bands about 30 quid each to come to Europe and tour.

This article needs to be balanced by the reality of what's going on out there. No-one claims British bands are being 'picked on' this is a Europe wide problem that is being fought by bands from across the continent and it doesn't need music biz insiders spreading falsehoods.

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Paul
Feb 26, 2016 1:53pm

Mr. Inglis has been touting this misinformation for some time now. I'm really surprised that a website as good as the Quietus has given him a platform. It certainly does not cost 282 pounds to tour the USA - that's a total fabrication. Articles like this will make a very difficult campaign fought by the likes of John Robb at Louder Than War much harder to fight. (Great article here on the realities of visas and touring http://louderthanwar.com/are-these-the-last-days-of-british-bands-touring-america/)

Visas to the USA are stupidly expensive.

1. It may cost 2/300 per person but you have to pay a US visa company to petition your visa for you- it can cost up to 2 grand and then you have to pay a UK visa company to send your visa to the US embassy and book your appointment for you at the American embassy - that can cost up to another 1000 pounds.
2. Then you have to bring the whole band down to London for the meeting at the American embassy - that can cost a 5 piece band 80 plus pounds each in train fares and then because your meeting is at 8 in the morning you will have to come the night before - add hotel costs to the bill.
3. Then the US embassy will fuck up your application and you will get your visas back a week into your tour meaning you have to cancel flights and dates - this is not a random occurrence - this happens all the time. There is a huge list of bands who have been messed around like this and they will not be happy about this article belittling their genuine difficulties and high costs for such a random system.
4. To rub salt into the wounds it costs American bands about 30 quid each to come to Europe and tour.

This article needs to be balanced by the reality of what's going on out there. No-one claims British bands are being 'picked on' this is a Europe wide problem that is being fought by bands from across the continent and it doesn't need music biz insiders spreading falsehoods.

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Norm
Feb 26, 2016 2:08pm

Out of order and wildly inaccurate and misleading article that has put the campaign for proper visas back by months.
A much more accurate depiction reality that bands have to face is from John Robb at Louder Than War here http://louderthanwar.com/it-costs-up-to-5000-to-get-a-british-band-visas-for-the-usa-and-30-to-get-an-american-band-into-the-uk-the-special-relationship/.

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Anisha
Feb 26, 2016 2:27pm

This is wank. Plus he manages East India Youth! Music for pale virgins

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Nicky
Feb 27, 2016 8:24pm

What a sad and pointless article.

All people are doing is trying to push for a fairer visa system for all foreign artists touring in the US - I'm not sure exactly what Mr Inglis gains from trying to hinder this.

Of course the US don't care and things probably won't change, but surely it's worth trying.

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Feb 27, 2016 8:27pm

I'm not sure who this guy is or why he's been given the platform to write this article... His only industry experience seems to be managing a third rate pet shop boys cover band

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Mister Cat
Feb 29, 2016 1:05pm

What a useless bunch of garbage. "It's not expensive if you really want it" said everyone who ever engaged in apologetics for overpriced crap. How is that a productive approach in the slightest? And OF COURSE paperwork should be less expensive than booking a spot in an incredibly advanced piece of technology to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Get those prices out of my face, they're off fucking topic.

He said it flat out: "The cost of a US Visa is expensive if you're not going to make any money on your tour, (and unless you're very, very lucky, you're not)"

That's enough right there. Sure, it has the potential of longer lasting career benefits, so we certainly can't say it's not work at all, but to pretend like there's no case or grounds for taking that into account. Maybe we'd benefit culturally by pretending tours by small bands are glorified vacations.

What a complete waste of keyboard clatter this is "If you really want it! HURRRRRR"

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