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SXSW responds to deportation threat controversy

By | Published on Friday 3 March 2017

Told Slant

America’s SXSW has responded to controversy over a clause in its artist contracts threatening international acts with deportation if they play unofficial events at the festival. The clause came to light after New York band Told Slant cancelled their appearance in protest over it. But festival CEO Roland Swenson says that the contract term is “a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious”.

Told Slant frontman Felix Walworth yesterday posted a screengrab of the clause, saying: “After looking through this contract sent to me by SXSW I have decided to cancel Told Slant’s performance at the festival”.

The key part of the section posted reads: “International Artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa, or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival DAY OR NIGHT shows in Austin from 13-19 Mar 2017. Accepting and performing unofficial events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport, or denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US points of entry”.

In a lengthy string of tweets, some taking aim at other aspects of SXSW, Walworth stated: “I’m not interested in aligning myself with an institution that interacts with immigration authorities as a means of controlling where art is shared and performed, and who makes money off of it. This festival uses an imperialist model and prioritises centralising and packaging culture over communities and people’s safety”.

“It’s no secret that SXSW has played a huge role in the process Austin’s rapid gentrification”, he continued. “The whole festival exists to the detriment of working class people and people of colour in Austin. That they’re willing to threaten deportation is enough evidence for me that they don’t care about anyone including the artists that lend them their legitimacy. When we allow our alignment with institutions like this to be our metric for success as artists we are seriously failing. I’d like to add that all artists received this contract. It’s the standard SXSW official showcase contract”.

He then called on other artists to follow his lead and also pull out of the festival.

In response, speaking to the Austin Chronicle, Swenson noted that there was increased sensitivity around immigration issues in the wake of Donald Trump’s attempted travel ban. However, he said, this language had been in the festival’s contracts for several years, and was intended as a protection for extreme cases. He also suggested that Walworth’s protest was merely a publicity stunt.

“We’ve had these restrictions in the agreement for about five years and never had to enforce them”, he said. “It’s intended for someone who does something really egregious like disobeying our rules for pyrotechnics, starts a brawl in a club, or kills somebody. You have to really fuck up for us to do this stuff”.

“What people don’t understand is that we’re already talking to immigration about all these [international] bands”, he continued. “Most of these bands are here because we sort of sponsored them. So if somebody did something bad enough that we had to enforce this part of the contract, we would probably be obliged to notify immigration that ‘hey these guys are trouble’, but we’ve never had to do that”.

Referencing the language about playing unofficial events, he added: “Some of this about playing shows other than their showcase, which, if they come in on the kind of visa that most of them get – they’re not supposed to do that. All this stuff in there about getting deported and immigration – that’s just us telling them this could happen if you’re doing this other stuff. It’s not us saying we’re going to try and have you deported, it’s us warning them that if they violated the terms of the visa that got them here, that’s what could happen”.

Commenting on Walworth’s protest specifically, he said: “I think that everybody has figured out that a quick way to get your name out there is to accuse us of conspiring with immigration authorities, but we’ve been on the right side of immigration issues. We’re doing a show with bands from the seven banned countries and we came out publicly against the immigration ban last month. I don’t know why this guy did this. He’s just confusing this very complicated subject”.

Swenson also accused Walworth of combining two separate sections of the contract to make it look worse. Although Walworth subsequently tweeted a video of himself scrolling through the email from which he took the text and Stereogum also confirmed that the email was as Walworth had stated originally.

Swenson then said that he hadn’t initially realised that the wording was taken from an “invite letter”, rather than the full contract. He told the Austin Chronicle later: “It was still a misunderstanding on his part in thinking that the deportation threat was from us, not just the consequences of violating the terms of the visa. It was also out of context … But no matter what a contract says, it’s easy to jump to conclusions when you pull a couple of paragraphs out of context”.