Permission to land?

For musicians, the USA is anything but the land of the free. Chris Jagger believes that strict new regulations for European bands wanting to play there are unfair and smack of protectionism
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Why is the US so hostile to visiting musicians from this country? Granted, it has never been easy to go there and play on a temporary work permit, but recent restrictions and changes in policy add up to complications of a Kafkaesque complexity that only well-heeled immigration lawyers might be able sort out for you - and at a price.

Why is the US so hostile to visiting musicians from this country? Granted, it has never been easy to go there and play on a temporary work permit, but recent restrictions and changes in policy add up to complications of a Kafkaesque complexity that only well-heeled immigration lawyers might be able sort out for you - and at a price.

The reciprocal arrangement is, by contrast, a doddle; American musicians can fill in a simple visa-form to be able to play shows across Europe with few restrictions. Hardly any are refused. The Musicians' Union in this country is so concerned at the disparity that it is lobbying the Government for some redress for its members, but don't hold your breath.

The big question is whether the latest super-strict measures imposed by the USA are really about post-September-11 "security", or whether there is a strong streak of protectionism, too. Could we need Beyoncé more than they need The Darkness?

It has never been easy to obtain a permit to play to American audiences. There was once a reciprocal union exchange agreement between the two countries, but it could often be a sham, with one of the parties cancelling their trip while allowing the other to go ahead. I last travelled there five years ago and, despite paying Los Angeles immigration lawyers to sort matters out, I still ended up queuing in the rain at the American embassy in London, and my band missed our first show.

Recent changes make it mandatory for every visa applicant to make a personal appearance there once a 28-page form has been submitted and the relevant conditions met. This will soon be coupled with the new biometric testing, a fingerprint scan that will also be introduced for tourists. Even Sting may find himself standing in the rain for three hours before a 20-minute interview. No matter that he would fall under the 0-1 category of "persons who have extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics or in the motion picture and television field". A 0-2 category is there for his side-men and second fiddles.

And in order to reach this point, the aspiring musician may have to wait four months once his petition has been lodged with the BCIS (Bureau of Citizen and Immigration Services) by his sponsor in the USA, usually a record company or promoter. As contracts for the relevant shows have to be produced for this, and these are seldom signed until the last minute, nobody who wants to play in the US takes this course and so, instead of paying the reasonable $130 per petition, they opt for "premium processing" which operates in a mere 15 days and costs $1,000. Any other personnel, for example technical and road crew members, are filed under another category, meaning another petition and a further $1,000. The associated, complicated, form naturally requires a suitable lawyer who will cost around $1,500. Then there's the $100 fee for each visa application.

To get a date for the interview, you must call a premium line at the US embassy for $1.30 per minute, and calls are cut off after 15 minutes regardless of whether the applicant has obtained or supplied all the relevant information. All in all, the cost for a band will stack up to around $7,500, or more, depending on the personnel involved. It takes specialist companies like Traffic Control in London to organise it all for you.

What the situation amounts to in practice is letting the big boys in and excluding the others. For the organisers of small festivals in the USA, it is much too complicated and expensive, and the fees involved will probably exceed any appearance money. It's a particular problem for orchestras. With so many players, many based outside London, the cost of visas and overnight stays in the capital to attend the US embassy is prohibitive. Many players are self-employed and play with more than one ensemble, which further complicates matters. For many community and educational groups the costis too high.

The rules apply to all performances, paid or not, so any appearance in front of an audience will breach regulations and a performer may be heavily fined and banned from returning to the US. This is why annual industry events in the US such as South by Southwest have seen a marked drop in attendances from these shores.

With less opportunity now for performers to travel to such a huge market, there has been a downturn in the money generated by the UK music business. For the past four years, money generated from touring performances in the US has exceeded corresponding record sales there. But this is largely due to top-grossing acts such as The Rolling Stones, and there are no new acts stepping into their shoes.

Joe Cokell from Sanctuary Records tells me that taking artists to the US involves a lot of planning. "You need three to four months ahead of promo time, and there is no leeway either; if a record starts to take off in the US, you can't adjust plans and get straight out there. There appears to be an element of protectionism."

"Historical" problems too are looming larger than ever now the FBI has carte blanche to look into all files, even those deleted by British police forces. One band-member was refused entry because of an offence committed as a teenager, when he drove a cart on to a golf course in the night. Nick Beggs from Kajagoogoo says that their guitar-player had incurred a speeding ticket on a previous holiday in the US but it was not forwarded to him and left unpaid. Gigs worth many thousands of dollars had to be pulled after his visa was refused. "We have been asked to return," he says, "but is it really worth the hassle?"

Cokell tells me of a Sanctuary band who included a Japanese national, and how the complexity of getting him in with the rest ended in an impasse. Then there was the Yusuf Islam incident: the former Cat Stevens was bundled off a flight and deported. Even Blur and Kylie Minogue have had problems with the system.

Why all the fuss over musicians? Tourists, after showing proof of their first night's accommodation, can disappear into the ether. Of the 15 million who enter the US annually, about four million come from this country under the "visa waiver programme". They are largely welcomed for the cash they spend. Small wonder, then, that there is growing resentment of the US bands strolling across Europe in the summer months to play festivals, with little or no restriction. The Home Office site says: "You can come to the UK as an entertainer without a work permit if you hold a genuine invitation to perform at one or more specific events." Essentially, US acts merely have to show that they are established.

There is some hope that Estelle Morris, the arts minister, is taking the problem seriously, along with the Music Business Forum. But the recent experience when Brazil tried to stand up to US visa policy and got nowhere is not encouraging.