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September 16, 2007

Almost famous? If you're a Brit — go home!

That's the gist of yesterday's Wall Street Journal article by John Jurgensen about the increasing difficulties facing not-so-famous U.K. musicians trying to enter and perform in the U.S.; the story follows.

    U.S. Repels British Invasion

    Immigration policy collides with surge of U.K. bands, scuttling fall concert plans

    British pop star Lily Allen [top] was supposed to perform at the MTV Video Music Awards last weekend and then head to the West Coast for the week of sold-out concerts she had booked. Instead, she spent this past week at home in London.

    The reason: The chart-topping singer can't get into the U.S. American authorities took away her immigration visa last month.

    This fall, the British aren't coming. Immigration restrictions are stopping some popular United Kingdom acts from reaching U.S. borders. At least three anticipated tours by British artists scheduled for this month alone have been called off or pushed back because of musicians' visa problems. That is on top of at least 10 scuttled tours by buzzed-about British acts in the last year.

    Part of the problem, immigration specialists say: The traditional visa system isn't set up to cope with the new face of popular music. To get into the U.S., many foreign music acts need to secure a document known as the "P-1"-class visa. This visa requires acts to prove that they have been "internationally recognized" for a "sustained and substantial" amount of time.

    But in the current music scene, some of the most sought-after bands are ones that didn't exist two years ago and have risen rapidly thanks to exposure on the Internet. These bands, with huge fan followings but short track records, are finding themselves trying to prove to immigration officials that they are famous.

    For the English band Klaxons, that meant submitting clips of magazine reviews as part of their visa application package last year. The band, which last week won the U.K.'s prestigious Nationwide Mercury Prize, is known for a driving mix of dance, pop and rock that sparks frenzied live shows. After forming in the fall of 2005, the group quickly ascended to fame in England, thanks in large part to buzz on MySpace.

    Last fall, the group landed a spot at the CMJ music festival in New York, an annual showcase of new talent. But its visa request was delayed when immigration officials said they needed more evidence of the band's longevity. About a week before its scheduled trip to the U.S., the band pulled the plug on the tour. The group waited another seven months to enter the U.S.

    U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security, says that the Internet has changed the kind of evidence that bands present — posts from blogs and online magazines now appear in application packages. But the agency says it will only consider these sources if the band can prove that they are well-read and influential. The burden of proof falls on the band.

    "We're not Simon Cowell. We're the people who have to know why this group qualifies," says Robert DeJulius, an adjudications supervisor at one of the two service centers that processes P-1 visas. Mr. DeJulius adds that his center has, in fact, processed the petition of Mr. Cowell, the "American Idol" judge.

    Immigration restrictions have affected fields from investment banking to biotechnology in recent years. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a national debate on immigration, some companies say they have had more trouble bringing in talented people from abroad. The pop-music world is dealing with its own version of this issue.

    Emerging indie bands account for a small portion of music-industry revenues. But concert promoters and clubs typically take a hit whenever there's a cancellation. Live concerts are one of the only bright spots in the music business now. Box-office grosses for the top 100 concerts increased by 3.7% to $1.05 billion for the first half of 2007 over the same period last year, according to Pollstar. Meanwhile, album sales fell by 15.1% in that period, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

    As a result of Ms. Allen's tour cancellation, instead of being packed to its 1,500-person capacity Friday night, the Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Ore., was empty. The club didn't collect the $10,000 rental fee it would have gotten for the performance from local promoter Monqui Presents, which had spent about $2,000 advertising the show.

    "Being dark on a Friday night, it's a big loss," says Jimi Biron, a booker for McMenamins, the club chain that owns the Crystal Ballroom and 15 other venues.

    Had the tour happened, Ms. Allen would have collected up to $120,000 for six concerts, according to someone familiar with her earnings. She also could have pocketed up to $10,000 per concert in merchandise sales. Harder to estimate is the loss for Ms. Allen and her record label, Capitol, in album sales her tour could have spurred.

    "It's going to slow momentum down," says Ms. Allen's manager, Neale Easterby. "We just want to get back out there."

    In Ms. Allen's case, it wasn't lack of recognition that caused her visa problems. According to her manager, Ms. Allen had a one-year visa that was valid until Sept. 25. But it was taken away on Aug. 5 when she landed in Los Angeles. Her manager says he thinks the visa might have been revoked because Ms. Allen had been arrested in London in June after an altercation with photographers. USCIS says it does not comment on individual cases. Ms. Allen declined to comment.

    All this comes as some foreign governments are ramping up efforts to export pop music. New Zealand, for instance, has formed a music commission with a $400,000 budget to support the country's music acts on tours abroad. At least three bands will play New Zealand's first showcase concert at the CMJ festival next month.

    "We've seen a much more aggressive effort from the cultural export agencies. I see it as the globalization of the music marketplace," says CMJ founder Robert Haber. This year, bands from 50 countries are slated to perform at the event, up from about 30 countries three years ago.

    The Internet has made it easier for bands to build American fan bases before they ever land on U.S. shores. When the London indie-rock band Mystery Jets had to cancel its U.S. concert debut this summer because of visa problems, 21-year-old Krisan Cieszkiewicz of Portage, Ind., was devastated. "I've never experienced anything more heartbreaking or cruel in my life," says Ms. Cieszkiewicz, who had planned to see the band in Chicago.

    Canceled tours by British groups attract particular notice, in part because of a surge of British acts on the U.S. music scene. In the past two years, some of the best-selling albums in the U.S. have come from artists including James Blunt and Coldplay.

    The P-1 is one of several classes of visas that entertainers can use to enter the U.S. to work. Superstars and others deemed to have "extraordinary ability" typically receive an "O-1" visa.

    The number of P-1 visa applications approved by the U.S. government — which also includes visas for athletes and can include groups ranging from two to several dozen or more — has actually risen slightly in recent years — from 42,430 in 2001 to 46,205 in 2006. But some immigration experts say the visa process has become stricter and more complex for musicians.

    Before 2001, for example, tour managers were allowed to bring band members' visa documents to local U.S. consulates for visa approval. Now, each applicant must appear in person at a U.S. embassy for fingerprinting, a retinal scan and an interview.

    New guidelines allow acts to submit visa applications up to a year ahead of a tour, but most clubs won't schedule shows more than a few months ahead. Bands often pay an extra $1,000 fee for speedier "premium" processing.

    These logistical headaches are David King's bread and butter. Mr. King runs the New York-based Traffic Control Group, a company to which many bands turn for visa help. His clients include Lily Allen, Elton John and Van Morrison.

    A former insurance broker from England who became a U.S. citizen three years ago, Mr. King specializes in convincing immigration workers that his clients are, in fact, famous.

    On his office wall, Mr. King tracks pending tour deadlines on a large whiteboard. He says he has had only a handful of outright visa denials in his 10 years at Traffic Control; he turns down potential clients if he senses they won't pass muster.

    "We have a reputation to keep up," he says. "I say, 'Go away and come back in a year.' "

September 16, 2007 at 05:31 PM | Permalink


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This sound more like "Send us your muddled asses".

Posted by: Skipweasel | Sep 17, 2007 3:32:16 PM

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