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Now’s Your Chance To Stop Homeland Security From Price-Gouging International Touring Bands

Seriously, you can help! Please help!

Mr. Krabs from Spongebob reclining on a pile of money. Looking at another dollar bill in his hands/claw. Image: Nickelodeon.

As a country that loves to tout its origin mythology as a “nation of immigrants,” you’d think U.S. foreign policy would appreciate the value of musicians and artists coming from all over the world to share their culture, viewpoints, and talents. You’d think, but who am I kidding? American foreign policy has frequently expressed a blatant desire to keep people out. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security is proposing to exact that exclusionist ethos with a 250% visa cost hike, which will severely affect every international musician touring the U.S. Fortunately, there is something that, if you’re an American citizen, you can do to help.

As reported by Stereogum, the DHS has proposed raising the prices of the visas that are required for international musicians, artists, actors, etc. coming to perform in the U.S. The P-2 visa, which is for people “coming to temporarily perform as an artist or entertainer,” would rise in price from $460 to $1,615. The O-1 visa, which enables artists, entertainers, businessmen, scientists, athletes, educators, etc., the opportunity to come to the U.S. for up to three years, would rise from $460 to $1,655.

If you are coming to the U.S. to tour with your band, even as a Canadian, you have to get a P-2 visa—per member. That means a four-person band would have to front $6,460 just in visa fees.

By DHS’s own admission, the raise comes because of increased budget needed due to “expanded humanitarian programs, higher demand, increased processing times, and a need for more USCIS employees.” Higher demand … compared to the pandemic? A need for more employees? Did people quit because they weren’t getting paid enough? Oh boy.

The harsh economic reality of touring right now

It’s been a rough go for musicians “since” the pandemic (“since” because COVID’s unfortunately still hanging out whether we like it or not, and musicians regularly risk exposure at live performances.) It was hard to tour at a profit before 2020, and it’s mind-numbingly difficult now—unless you’re a stadium-packing musician like Beyoncé. This, unfortunately, is true for bands inside the U.S. and outside.

The highest-profile example from 2022 was Animal Collective, a band that approximately 87% of American indie and college kids circa 2010 had on repeat. Animal Collective canceled a European tour in fall 2022 specifically because the economic reality made no sense. Their statement perfectly illustrates the depth of the unfortunate situation performers are currently facing.

It has been a wild year for us trying to push through a mountain of touring obstacles related to COVID and the economy. Three of us got bad cases of COVID… We chose to push through because we love to do it. But preparing for this tour we were looking at an economic reality that simply does not work and is not sustainable. From inflation, to currency devaluation, to bloated shipping and transportation costs, and much much more, we simply could not make a budget for this tour that did not lose money even if everything went as well as it could. 

We have always been the kind of people to persevere through the difficult times and get on stage unless our health prevented it. We are choosing not to take the risk to our mental and physical health with the economic reality of what that tour would have been.

Animal Collective statement, via Instagram

If this is what it’s like for a band as well-known as Animal Collective (ANIMAL COLLECTIVE!), then imagine what it’s like for the legions of lesser-known bands. For these bands, touring is the way to promote your music and gain a larger fanbase and more renown. Since the introduction of streaming services like Spotify, which sap royalties, touring has also been the only way musicians can make money with their craft. But, unless you’re of a certain incredibly tall stature, that’s no longer the case.

Bands outside the U.S. are suffering this same financial hardship. South Korean rock band Say Sue Me also canceled a fall 2022 tour, but theirs was to North America. Their statement reads an awful lot like Animal Collective’s.

A lot has been said recently about the difficulties of touring in these current times, and now we have to add to it. We were really excited and looking forward to finally meet you again. But in working and re-working multiple scenarios, every way we looked at it, we just could not make a tour budget work enough that it would not overwhelm us with financial hardship. We postponed these dates once already due to ongoing uncertainties related to the pandemic, and also faced some show cancellations and other postponements, all of which put a strain on us financially. Then, van, gas, hotels, freight, everything has increased in cost significantly. Meanwhile our show income will remain the same or dropped after being unable to reschedule some shows.

Even in a best-case scenario where everything goes the best it could, and if we sold as much merch as we can afford to make, ship and carry with us, it would not be enough to make this tour financially sustainable.

Say Sue Me statement, via Instagram

Say Sue Me’s statement offers more insight into the other aspects of touring, beyond finances and COVID itself, which has been made more difficult in recent years: postponements, cancellations, constantly reevaluating your tour route. My friend, all of that is work that someone is doing—and for smaller acts, it’s often the band themselves. When you add the financial burdens, the health risks, and the scheduling drama together, you’ve got yourself emerging musicians around the world going through existential crises. (Definitely not speaking personally, here. Definitely … not … *curls into ball.*)

Why DHS’s new visa fee would severely impact the American music scene

Now that you know exactly how difficult it is to tour right now, let’s return to the proposed visa hike. Imagine that every band from abroad, which is already struggling to balance the books on their tour, now has to pay 250% more for their entry visas, per member, adding several thousand extra dollars in expenses. What do you think will happen? They’ll stop touring the U.S.

It should be mentioned that this also includes bands from Canada. Canada! For Canadian bands, dipping down to play a few shows in the U.S. is a quintessential part of touring. The inverse is also true—if you’re an American musician, you often try to work Toronto and Montreal into your tour. The twisted irony here is that U.S. bands don’t have to spend a penny in visa fees to play Canada. (The fee, which was minimally $325 per member, was scrapped in 2016 after only a few years.)

In fact, U.S. bands don’t have to pay nearly as much anywhere as what the DHS has now, before this proposed rate hike. After Brexit, Britain enacted a new system, which requires about $300 per band member. Remember the DHS currently charges $460 per person and wants to raise it to over $1,600. This is an exception across the entire globe.

The American music scene is better for having bands from Canada and South Korea and Mexico and Europe come here and tour. These bands help generate income for the bars and venues they play—which is especially important at a time when small businesses are also having trouble making ends meet. They help create an international community for local bands. My band was able to tour Japan purely because a mutual friend played with a Tokyo-based band in California. (They’re called Loolowningen & the Far East Idiots, and they’re the best band.) Music thrives on communities. The bigger you can make your community, the better the whole scene will be for it.

It’s not just international bands who would be hurt by this—American bands will be, as well, especially if other countries follow DHS’s example and exact similar fee hikes. This proposal would be a devastating blow to a music touring economy that is already suffering.

How you can help stop DHS’s visa cost increases

Fortunately, you can help! The DHS is taking public comments on the Federal Register until March 6, 2023. If you’re a US citizen, tell them they should not go through with this proposal! You can do so RIGHT HERE!

If you don’t know what to say, just write, “The suggested proposal will severely hurt the domestic music community. Please do not raise this fee and discourage touring musicians from coming to the U.S.”

If you enjoy live music, I’m begging you to write a complaint to Homeland Security. The U.S. shouldn’t be price-gouging musicians to make up for its own missteps. Everyone will be better off if playing in the States is as easy as possible.

(featured image: Viacom)

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Kirsten (she/her) is a musician, audio person, writer, and nerd. When not talking about One Piece or Zelda (among other anime and games), she's finding surprising ways to play the guitar.