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New US visa 260% price hike will impose further pain on UK touring musicians

Whilst Brexit-based visa restrictions currently make EU touring financially unviable for many up-and-coming bands, planned US visa increases now threaten access to the American live music circuit.

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Unsplash: Joshua Pearson

The plight of the UK musician seeking to ply their trade in the EU has been well documented in Now Then. From financially restrictive visa charges to Schengen Rule 90/180 day restrictions, and a minefield of red tape and form filling, opportunities for both established and fledgling UK artists have never been so restrictive and expensive.

To this litany of pain for an industry that nets c. £4bn of annual revenue [Source: Forbes UK 2021], new, punitive financial implications now loom in the shape of a proposed 260% price hike for US visa applications, a prerequisite for all touring band members.

Under the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) plans, the "P" visa cost - allowing acts entering the US to perform within a specific, limited timeframe - would jump from £375 per person to an eye-watering £1,317 per person. The longer term "O" visa would also increase to £1,655.

Unsurprisingly, industry organisations - already fully mobilised in their on-going quest to challenge restrictive Brexit-induced touring rules - such as the Music Managers Forum (MMF) and Featured Artists Coalition (FAC) and their high profile #LetTheMusicMove campaign are gearing up to oppose the changes, stating that the moves could result in "constrictive costs for UK artists looking to tour North America".

The NME reports that Rina Sawayama, Adam Devonshire (IDLES) and Alexis Taylor (Hot Chip) have added their vocal support to the MMF/FAC campaign, all of which have strong echoes of the well recorded visa/Schengen rule implications resulting from Brexit.

After what we've been through with Brexit and the pandemic, the implications of these new visa proposals are incredibly worrying for all artists wanting to travel and perform in the US. I travel with a 15+ crew on a tight margin, and any cost increase sadly gets passed on to concert-goers through higher ticket prices, which is not fair. Live music should be democratic and accessible, and this is just another blow to the arts sector.

Rina Sawayama

Alexis Taylor cited the huge impact US touring has had on Hot Chip and their development as a major band: "We've been lucky enough to do it for 15 or more years. It helped us reach and be supported by a very loyal and ever-growing audience. It's probably the biggest territory in the world for us as a band, so to make it almost impossible for bands to afford to tour the US when coming from overseas is unthinkable.

"It will derail so many careers and seems like a completely destructive approach. Many bands will (now) get together to lobby to prevent this change."

Adam Devonshire of IDLES told the NME: "Britain is renowned for its hugely profitable musical exports. However, with pointless and costly restrictions such as these, UK artists will struggle to make a name for themselves in the US, which would be a huge shame. I'm calling on the UK Government to oppose these changes."

Cynics amongst us will point out that long-standing Government inertia in engaging with the EU over visa/Schengen touring issues hardly generates optimism for any form of engagement on this new issue, bearing in mind the less-than-encouraging statistic that the current Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport - Lucy Frazer - is the fifth in as many years.

However, with the stranglehold of Brexit ideology absent from this specific US development, there is hope that dialogue can - and must be - explored, and the sooner the better according to Music Managers' Forum Chief Executive Annabella Coldrick. She told the NME it was already “too expensive and complicated” for artists to tour internationally without this adding to the situation.

With the annual SXSW in Austin, Texas - a massive showcase for new and up-and-coming UK artists such as Prima Queen and Leeds-based band English Teacher - having just taken place, focus will be on industry heavyweights and promoters alike maximising their efforts to instigate urgent Government involvement.

The stakes are indeed high, with results from MMF's campaign indicating that some 70% of UK music artists would cancel their US touring plans should the new price hikes come into force, a potential game-changer given that the cost of touring has already increased by 40% as a result of Brexit, the pandemic and inflation, and the fact that the UK has seen a 30% decline in its global market share since 2015. Damning statistics indeed.

The hurdles facing UK touring bands have never been higher and it's certainly not hyperbole to say this latest blow could potentially be catastrophic for the UK Music industry.

Want to help or have your say? It's critical that fans of all genres of UK music demonstrate their support either by attending local gigs and supporting local venues such as Sheffield's Leadmill.

Additionally, you can write to Lucy Frazer ([email protected]) or your local MP to register the need for UK Government action and engagement.

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