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CMU@TGE 2017: The top five visa mistakes made by musicians

By | Published on Monday 22 May 2017

Francine Gorman & Andy Corrigan at The Great Escape 2017

Look out for reports on all the key sessions at the CMU Insights conferences at The Great Escape over the next few weeks. Plus, from next Monday, we’ll be publishing a series of CMU Trends reports providing more in depth versions of the insight presentations CMU Insights delivered during TGE this year – go premium to access CMU Trends. Today, visa tips from our Export Conference.

As part of the BPI-supported CMU Insights Export Conference at this year’s Great Escape, the founder of entertainment industry visa and immigration services company Viva La Visa, Andy Corrigan, presented a session on the top five visa mistakes commonly made by musicians before heading out to perform internationally.

Visas for musicians have been in the news a lot this year of course, after numerous artists found themselves turned away from the US border as they travelled into the country to perform at SXSW, amid confusion over what kind of American visa you actually need to play at the big showcasing event.

Though artists getting stuck at international borders facing visa issues is nothing new. Here are Corrigan’s top five tips to greatly reduce the chances of that happening to your artists as they go global.

1. Don’t leave it too late
The most common problem we encounter is artists simply not allowing sufficient time to properly process all the visas they need.

It’s difficult, we know, because while the bigger artists plan their tours a long time in advance, for smaller artists offers can come in late in the day. But one of the major problems we have to tackle is a lack of planning on the artist’s side.

Sometimes artists will look online and see information about different visas that says this element of the process takes this many days, this element this many days, and then they add that together and assume that’s all the time they need.

But that doesn’t take into account the delays which can often occur. And people routinely underestimate the time needed at the top end, before anything is submitted, getting all the information and documentation together for a visa. Things take longer than you expect, and rush jobs end up costing more.

2. Don’t get the wrong visa
This was the issue that caused problems around SXSW this year. There used to be an opinion, in part communicated by SXSW itself, that people coming from overseas to only play official showcases didn’t require a work visa, and could travel into the US on either an ESTA or a visitor’s visa.

This had mainly worked for the last four years. SXSW produced a letter that said, “this person has been invited to perform at this private showcase – allow them to enter”, and the authorities usually did. But this year that didn’t always work, and we saw people’s ESTAs being revoked, sometimes mid-flight, or before they travelled.

This raises the question, what visa do you need for the US? Our conclusion at the moment is that you should always get a work visa to be on the safe side. That applies to whatever type of performances you’re doing. Remember, the previous system was based on an opinion rather than an edict from the American government, and it doesn’t seem to work now.

The ultimate decision over whether or not you are allowed into the country to play is down to the official you meet on the border. If they think you’re coming in to work and you’re on a visitor’s visa, they will Google you and see if you have any dates booked. If they refuse you entry, you get turned around and sent home, plus you’ll find it more difficult in the future to get a visa. And you won’t be able to travel on an ESTA again.

Other territories have different categories of visa as well.

China does, and these are slightly grey areas. The norm is to go in on business visas, rather than work visas, because things are still in a state of flux in China. But you still have to know what your visa entitles you to do, in case you’re questioned. In India, if you apply for a media visa – or anything that’s perceived to be a media visa – it will get held up an extra two weeks, so often people travel to India on business visas.

Basically, you need to be really clear on what you’re going to be doing when you are in any one country and what your visa allows you to do.

3. Don’t lie on the form
This mainly applies to America as well. In American immigration law, they set great store by misrepresentation.

If you’re ineligible to enter the US for some reason – say, because of a criminal record – it can be a grey area, because it depends on whether the crime that you’ve committed is sufficiently serious. However, misrepresentation – lying – is a very clear cut offence. And so they can say, if you misrepresent anything on any visa application, then you’re inadmissible. It’s really simple. And it happens a lot.

We know from practical experience that when people are questioned at the border, they’re much more likely to be looked kindly upon if they answer truthfully and appear to be open. And we always advise applicants that when they go for their visa interview at the US embassy to be as open and straightforward and honest as they possibly can be, and appear to be so too.

If you have any criminal convictions, there’s a process you need to go through, by which you get a UK police certificate which outlines your convictions. You take that with you to the visa interview. They’ll say you’re inadmissible because of the criminal record, but in US visa law there’s what’s known as a waiver.

So, for every conviction there’s a direct waiver to counter it, to say that you can be admitted. That process takes longer – typically six months for the State Department to adjudicate – though once you’ve done it the first time, in theory subsequent visa applications should be quicker.

4. Don’t forget that rules can change
Rules change, and one of our jobs as a visa company is to keep up to date with all the changes in both the rules and any interpretations of those rules. And it’s not easy, because the relevant authorities don’t necessarily have PR departments – they don’t always tell you everything.

For instance, there has been a change for UK passport holders travelling to Canada, in that they’ve now introduced an ESTA-type system – an electronic visa. You fill in a form online, and one of the questions on the form is ‘have you committed any offences?’, so you have the same situation as America.

If you put ‘no’ and they find out that you have, then you’ll be thrown out. If you put ‘yes’, then you’ll be inadmissible to Canada and you’ll require a waiver, which takes several weeks. That potentially puts people who haven’t had problems playing in Canada in the past into a situation where now they will.

5. Don’t forget to budget for visa costs
You can do most visa processing by yourself, but generally people find it helpful to use an expert. In terms of budgeting, I think it’s good to speak to a visa company early on, and a good one should give you an idea of how to budget for your entire immigration costs.

Typically, we’ll have clients who come to us for a whole world tour. At the moment we’re doing Ed Sheeran, and they came to us before the start of the tour to talk about immigration and visas for the next two years. We had a meeting and talked through figures, in the same way they would for their sound supplier, and lighting, staging… all the other tour supplies. It’s a cost, like every other tour cost.

It can be made cheaper if you allow more time. But to be honest, American work visas are expensive for a new emerging act. It’s going to be at least £3000 or £4000 by the time you get to the US, and that’s a significant amount of money. But that’s the way it is. The UK music industry is lobbying to try to change it – the Musicians’ Union and ourselves and other organisations are trying to get it more cost effective – but at the moment we’re stuck with it, and it’s not a very high priority for the US government.

An artist’s touring contract might state that all immigration costs are borne by the promoter. Particularly if you’re going to, say, South Korea, that would probably be the case, or Australia for something one-off. But America, not so much, because trips to the US tend to be longer and you tend to be contracting with more than one promoter, and probably many. So sometimes it works to put immigration costs in the promoter contract, sometimes it doesn’t, but it is definitely worth considering.

Check out all the reports and resources CMU has published around this year’s CMU Insights @ The Great Escape conferences here. Find out more about Viva La Visa here.