Home Music Music Features

It’s Easier for Global Acts to Play in Russia Than in the U.S. Right Now

Covid-19 has made U.S. visa issues even more of a headache for musicians

Photo Illustration contains images by Adobe Stock

Less than two weeks before they were due in St. Paul, Minnesota, to launch a nearly sold-out, 27-date U.S. tour, British post-punk band Idles headed to the U.S. embassy in London to see if they’d have to cancel the whole thing.

They’d spent the past 10 months desperately trying to secure a visa, and September 24th was the earliest the overburdened, understaffed embassy could see them, offering nothing close to a guarantee that they’d be able to greenlight the tour, which was set to kick off October 7th.

“It has been absolutely insane,” says Idles manager Mark Bent, who has spent the entirety of 2021 sorting through the legal morass that is touring in the time of Covid-19. “Most people simply do not understand everything it takes to pull off an international tour these days.”

For overseas acts, coming to the United States to perform has always meant cutting through thick layers of bureaucratic red tape. But over the past few years — thanks to Trump-era policies designed to limit the numbers of foreigners entering the country and the never-ending nightmare of Covid-19 — the process has become so Kafkaesque and expensive that many acts have been forced to cancel their tours at the last minute. And that means, after almost two years of not working, some musicians are still unable to generate income or grow their live audience. 

“U.S. government is not giving visas in the embassy in Spain,” Spanish indie-rock band Hinds recently wrote to fans when they were forced to cancel their U.S. tour with Future Islands. “Don’t know what else to say. Our mood is on the floor and [our] plans are falling apart. Hope you had a better summer than us. See you soon (?).” The band since got their visas and were able to resume touring in October, but lost out on a whole month of dates.

Swedish singer-songwriter Kristian Matsson, who performs under the moniker the Tallest Man on Earth, also had to cancel his American tour shortly before it was slated to begin: “For over a year now the U.S. has not been granting work visas for Swedish citizens due to concerns around Covid-19,” he wrote to fans. “We know some musicians have been able to acquire exemptions to this ruling, but despite all efforts to obtain such an exemption and the fact that we are all vaccinated and continue to test negative for Covid, we have been denied multiple times.”

British cellist Isata Kanneh-Mason, French DJ Brodinski, Electronic artist French 79, and many others have also been forced to cancel their tours at the last minute. And Boy Pablo frontman Nicolas Muñoz had to play Lollapalooza without his backup band since they couldn’t get into the country. The list goes on.

Fiona McEntee, an immigration lawyer whose firm has worked with the Darkness and the Coronas on visa issues, says she’s never seen anything like this. “It’s been so frustrating,” she says. “It’s understandable there would be some delay in the process because of Covid, but the types of delays we are seeing now are just crazy. And many musicians and artists I work with haven’t really been able to work in a year and a half, so I cannot imagine how awful this must be for them.” 

Idles certainly feels the frustration. The British post-punk band have slowly built up a large American fan base over the past decade via relentless touring, finally breaking through this year to the point where they could sell out multiple nights at venues like the 5,000-person-capacity Terminal 5 in New York City — something they almost missed out on.

Their troubles began in January 2021, when Bent put a request into the American embassy in London for a visa appointment. This is a necessary step for any United States tour, and every person taking part in the tour, down to the road crew, needs to attend in person so they can be vetted before the form is stamped. (Like all international acts, they also needed to secure a National Interest Exemption waiver via the U.S. Department of Homeland Security). They were told no appointments were available at the embassy until January 2022.

“The whole Covid situation has just turned everything upside down,” Bent says. “But we made the decision to go ahead and go through the rest of the process in case we were able to get an earlier appointment. As long as we felt we had the paperwork ready to go and in place, that was the best position for us to be in.”

They eventually managed to get that September 24th appointment, even though they were booked to open up for Liam Gallagher in Belfast, Ireland, that evening. Bent, who estimates the group spent a minimum of $20,000 dealing with all this, scrambled to rearrange the tour schedule so everyone could be in London that morning as opposed to Ireland. But Gallagher injured himself falling out of a helicopter days before the show, and the show was called off. “The day suddenly opened up,” Bent says. “And we were lucky it did. They’re usually pretty quick at the embassy, but this time around, they weren’t. There were complications with some of the paperwork, and it was a much slower and more difficult process than it usually is.”

A big part of the problem is that embassies are short-staffed due to Covid-19 just as an unprecedented number of people need their services, thanks to the American travel ban that prevents citizens of the United Kingdom and the Schengen Area of Europe from entering the country. (This is slated to expire in November.) Exceptions are made for travelers with “extraordinary abilities,” and that includes prominent touring artists, but gaining that designation adds another frustrating layer to the process.

It involves, among other things, presenting officials with signed contacts for concerts in America. “[But] musicians and artists are reluctant to make all these bookings if they don’t know they’re going to get their visa,” McEntee says. “It’s a Catch-22 situation. ‘You can’t get your visa until you book your gigs.’ People are like, ‘Well, I don’t want to book my gigs until I get my visa.’”

Even before Covid-19, the visa process was more difficult than it had been in the past thanks to the Trump administration. “He put in place a Buy American [and] Hire American policy,” says Los Angeles-based immigration lawyer Lorraine D’Alessio. “That’s basically a blanket policy that turns people away. It’s kind of like how the Biden administration is using Title 40 at the border to turn away Haitian asylum seekers based on public health and safety for Americans … It’s very hard to cut through all of this without a skilled lawyer.”

Lawyers do not come cheap, though, adding yet another cost to the process that can ultimately price smaller acts out of American tours. This is even true for artists coming in from Canada. “Prices for expedited visas started to skyrocket after Covid,” says Michael Dimoulas, longtime guitarist in the Canadian cover band Hotel California: The Original Eagles Tribute. “They used to be $400 and now it’s $1,500, and at one point they were talking about $2,500. We play 150 shows a year and can make that. Smaller groups or groups that don’t book a lot of shows? There’s no way they’d be able to pay that.”

If this had been the situation when Idles formed a decade ago, they would never be in the position to play venues like Terminal 5 today. “This whole thing was built on being able to travel and play those small shows and grow with the fans,” Bent says. “If you’re talking 10,000 pounds [of fees] for a small band, that’s an impossible expense to have unless you have a support of a label. The problem is, in this day and age, you don’t get that support unless you’ve built everything yourself.” 

And even after Idles made their last-minute embassy appointment, they still received an email on September 28th, nine days before the tour launch in St. Paul, Minnesota, saying two photos they submitted were rejected for unexplained reasons. It put the entire visa application in jeopardy. 

“We had just announced the album [Crawler],” says Bent, “and Joe [Talbot] the singer was supposed to be doing some real key press opportunities to promote it. Instead, I’ve got him running around, trying to get a visa photo professionally done. I had to cancel all the promo. And I’ve got Jon [Beavis], the drummer, at the post office, printing out all the paperwork, doing all the special delivery. That’s because we got the email at 3 p.m. The cutoff for hitting the post was at 4:30 p.m. We had an hour and a half to get all of that together. This is one the day everybody should be celebrating!”

For McEntee, the entire situation is simply baffling considering the many benefits live music brings to communities. “The beauty of music is that every act is unique,” she says. “Nobody coming here is stealing any American jobs. And there’s been the whole Save Our Stages campaign to help keep independent venues open. Well, they need artists to be able to come here and perform. There are U.S. jobs at stake, too.”

Idles ultimately got final approval for their tour on October 1st, basically at the last possible second. Bent is very relieved, but also incredibly frustrated that it took all this simply to come to America and play some concerts. “It’s only America that you have these issues,” he says. “Everywhere else is a really, really simple process and a tiny portion of the price. You name anywhere, Japan, Australia … even getting into Russia is easier than getting into America.”

From Rolling Stone US