[Updated] SXSW Faces Backlash for Contract Threatening Deportation for Artists

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Earlier today, musician Felix Walworth, who plays in Told Slant, Eskimeaux, and Bellows, tweeted an excerpt from the contract that they were sent for their appearance at the South By Southwest Festival, which starts in a couple of weeks. The passage Walworth tweeted makes for, ahem, interesting reading:

The tweet has brought a swift backlash against the festival; The AV Club reported that “SXSW threatens international artists with deportation for playing unofficial shows,” noting that:

The screenshot Walworth posted states that “SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. Immigration authorities of the above actions,” going on to say that, “Accepting and performing at any non-sanctioned events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport, and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US points of entry.”

This, clearly, is a frightening prospect for any visiting musician. For what it’s worth, though, I’m not sure the AV Club is reading the contract correctly here. To my eyes, the wording is warning that if artists perform outside the terms of their visa, they might end up getting deported.

This, however, happened long before Trump came to power. Basically, residents of many countries can visit the USA under the visa waiver program, which means that they don’t have to apply for a visa if they’re staying less than 90 days. (This, incidentally, is what the seven countries named in Trump’s deportation order were initially under consideration by the Obama administration for: being excluded from the visa waiver program.) Because applying for a work visa to play shows is difficult, expensive and prone to failure, many bands travel here on a visa waiver, under the terms of which they are not allowed to work — and working includes playing shows. In the past, people have basically winged it, and festivals have tended to turn a blind eye to exactly whether bands playing are supposed to be doing so or not. Occasionally someone gets caught, but mostly bands have been able to get away with it.

Clearly, the Trump administration’s stance on immigration makes doing something like this a lot more risky than it has been in the past. In view of this, the wording here reads more like SXSW covering its ass than anything else; if it sponsors artists’ visas for the festival, it will want to be sure that doing so isn’t going to get the festival into legal trouble. As such, the contract says that if SXSW becomes aware of artists performing outside the terms of their visa, they may notify authorities. It also suggests that artists performing shows that they’re not authorized to play — i.e. shows not covered under the terms of their visa — may leave them subject to deportation, because it would constitute carrying out work illegally. Doing so would most certainly carry the risk of deportation, regardless of whether SXSW reports the artist in question or not.

I can’t imagine SXSW will be snitching on its own artists; this would seem counterproductive, in that it would invite further investigation into the festival, and a disastrous PR move, as the reaction to this tweet has shown. Of course, I might be wrong, and if I was an artist playing SXSW in the age of Trump, I’d definitely be making sure I had all my ducks in a row.

Update: SXSW contacted us with a copy of a statement by SXSW CEO and Co-Founder Ronald Swenson. The statement is fairly long and in-depth, but the most relevant part of it for these purposes reads as follows:

Language governing SXSW’s ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist Performance Agreement for many years. It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues… We hope never to be put in the position to act on this. Indeed, we spend a great deal of time communicating with international artists concerning numerous issues, including how to avoid issues at U.S. ports of entry.

Swenson goes on to explain the “accepting and performing unofficial events” language, which has been particularly controversial online (giving rise to accusations of SXSW “having artists deported for performing unofficial shows”, etc):

Moreover, there is language in the Performance Agreement which is included to inform foreign artists that the U.S. immigration authorities have mechanisms to create trouble for artists who ignore U.S. immigration laws. For example, those acts coming to SXSW to perform without a work visa are limited, by U.S. immigration law, to performing their showcase event only. If an artist wishes to perform elsewhere, they will require a work visa.

These explanations sound perfectly reasonable, to be honest, and while Walworth’s heart is certainly in the right place, the lesson here is that it’s probably a good idea to do some reading/research/consultation with lawyers/etc before setting off on a Quixotic crusade — all things, of course, to which the insta-reactionary culture of the internet doesn’t exactly lend itself.