Now that COVID shutdowns are receding into memory, being a live-music lover in Chicago is once again like being a kid in Candyland. But the concert industry in the city—and in the rest of the country—could be significantly harmed by a proposed rules change from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). If the change goes into effect, it would jack up fees for a huge range of applicants—and the cost of visas for international musicians would increase by up to 260 percent.
Romanticizing the blood, sweat, and tears that go into touring is more fun than considering the legal hurdles and bureaucracy that working musicians face when they try to enter our country. But if enacted, this proposal will directly impact your concert calendar, your wallet, or both—and it will also hurt U.S. music venues and music businesses. If you care about live music at all, it’s worth your time to get informed, contact your representatives in Washington, and leave feedback opposing the fee hikes at the Federal Register before the comment period closes March 13.
Visas for musicians fall into two categories: O visas, typically used by solo artists (and granted to exceptional individuals in a range of fields), and P visas, which are exclusively for entertainers and athletes. Under the proposed rules, filing fees for P petitions would jump from $460 to $1,615, while fees for O petitions would climb from $460 to $1,655. In both cases, those increases would include a $600 surcharge to fund asylum processing (an unrelated but vital USCIS function).
Each visa petition would also be capped at 25 beneficiaries, meaning larger ensembles would have to pay for several filings to cover all their members—three for a 70-piece orchestra, for example. As always, tour managers, sound engineers, instrument techs, and other workers categorized as anything other than “artists” must fill out a separate type of visa application: P-1S or P-3S for those accompanying an ensemble on a P petition, and O-2 for support musicians or crew accompanying a solo artist on an O petition. Their fees are all subject to increases as well.
“It’s creating a situation for large ensembles—classical music especially—that’s absolutely prohibitively expensive,” says Matthew Covey, founder of CoveyLaw, a Brooklyn-based firm known for its expertise in this area. He also serves as executive director of international arts-advocacy organization Tamizdat. “We’re just going to stop seeing as many large ensembles coming. It’s just not gonna happen.”
The proposed changes will also impact rising independent bands, even those who can drive a van across the Canadian or Mexican border rather than fly from overseas.
“With the rate hike, I am not sure what most bands will do,” says Robin Wattie of Big|Brave, an exploratory Montreal postrock trio who just released Nature Morte via Chicago label Thrill Jockey. “Some will bite the bullet and get the visas—even if that means not even making that money back on tour—and for others, they will just stop playing in the U.S.”
Montreal trio Big|Brave released Nature Morte on Chicago label Thrill Jockey.
Covey says the trouble began with a similar 2019 proposal that was invalidated when a federal judge determined that the acting leadership of the Department of Homeland Security—which oversees USCIS—hadn’t been properly appointed by Trump.
“In that ruling, they also raised some other issues,” he says. “As part of the opinion, they said, ‘There are other issues here that are worth examining regarding the legality of it, but we don’t have to do that because [the proposal is] already out.’ So that’s an interesting position to come at this one from, because this in a lot of ways is more egregious than that one—and those issues are still present, to a large extent.”
At the core of both proposals, Covey says, is the mandate that USCIS must fund itself. As administrative and bureaucratic expenses go up, the agency is trying to stick artists and other applicants with the bill.
“The irony here, of course, is that they’re needing funding to pay for a bureaucratic process, which is demonstrably unnecessarily and inhumanely complex in the first place,” Covey says. “So it’s sort of like making somebody pay extra for the rope that they’re gonna get hung by.”
The timing feels almost cruel, given that the live-music industry was hit especially hard by the pandemic and has yet to recover. “Touring has gotten much more expensive since the pandemic,” says Wattie. “From gas to van rentals to places to sleep—everything has gone up but guarantees, at least for a band like ours.”
For international musicians, visa application fees are just one part of the equation. The process of acquiring a U.S. visa is so notoriously laborious and complex that many artists also hire lawyers, racking up thousands of dollars in legal expenses. “In the beginning of the band, when we had little to no money, we didn’t even play in the U.S., as the idea of applying for the visa was not even something we would consider,” Wattie says.
U.S. labor unions—in this case, the American Federation of Musicians—also charge a fee to issue what’s called a “letter of no objection.” This is often a required step for work visa applicants, and it tends to cost $250 to $300. “The letter confirms that the union has reviewed the petition,” says Covey. “They don’t think that the individual or the ensemble’s impact on the labor market is detrimental to their members’ interests.”
A visa can take as long as six months to process, unless an applicant expedites it by coming up with another $2,500 for USCIS’s Premium Processing Service. Even jumping through every hoop doesn’t guarantee a visa will be granted, and USCIS doesn’t allow an applicant to request a refund unless they can provide evidence that an application was mishandled.
Shane Merrill of Empire Productions has spent the past quarter century booking heavy music in Chicago and Milwaukee, and he estimates that 15 to 20 percent of the bands he books are international. “There’s been a lot of instances, especially in the last five years, where bands just are doing everything right,” he says. “Then at the last minute, they’re told that the visas have been denied or postponed, and they’re not really given any reason for that. Then they have to postpone their entire tour, which is gonna cost them more money.”
Even if musicians trying to travel here do get stuck with fee increases of nearly $2,000 (if not more), you may wonder: Given the amount of money in play on a typical tour, is that such a big deal? Especially given that fees can often be split among several band members?
It’s potentially a very big deal, says Carlos Tortolero of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Tortolero has worked for the World Music Festival for 19 years—he currently collaborates with David Chavez to program it. Though the festival’s programming includes domestic artists who play styles rooted abroad, it depends very heavily on international musicians. Some artists in developing countries are wealthy, of course, just like in the States—but it’s also worth remembering that $2,000 U.S. dollars is more money in some parts of the world than it is here.
“I think a lot of musical experiences can be had here in the States,” Tortolero says. “But there’s still a lot of Indigenous art forms and musical cultures that you just can’t easily replicate or find, or just not have the same quality as from the country it happens to originate from.” He points to Indonesian troupe Gamelan Çudamani, which performed at the festival in 2019, and to the annual Ragamala marathon of Indian classical music.
The World Music Festival doesn’t depend on ticket sales or cover charges to pay its artists—it’s long been entirely free to the public. It gets its money from city funding, grants, sponsorships, and the like. Tortolero says this puts the festival in a relatively strong position to absorb the proposed fee increases.
“The good thing about being tethered to a city,” he says, “is that your budgets are a lot more reliable than maybe a small community arts organization that’s doing as much as they can, but they have a smaller staff and obviously have less resources than the third-largest city in the United States.”
But what hurts presenters elsewhere in the country can still hurt Chicago, despite the city’s advantages. Most overseas artists can’t afford to come all the way to the U.S. for a single anchor event, even one as well-resourced as Chicago’s World Music Festival. They need to tour, and that often requires organizations in different states to work together.
“In challenging times as it pertains to the festival—and other presenters like us or international presenters in the States—there is this tight-knit community that actively works together to absorb the impact,” Tortolero says. But if not enough of those presenters can offer an artist extra money to offset higher fees, an entire tour could fall apart.
No matter who’s paying international artists on their U.S. tours, music fans will feel the effects of the proposed rate hike—whether in higher ticket prices or in dwindling numbers of artists able to come here at all, especially early in their careers.
“What [USCIS] will be effectively doing is cutting out the development layer of performing arts, and they will be handing that market share—from the independent labels, independent agencies, and independent artists—to the multinational corporations who can afford to invest an extra $1,500 in a developing act,” Covey says. “It’s just a major blow to small business.”
That development layer is where the Chicago scene and its music venues shine the brightest. “Sometimes there’s a band that is super unknown, and they’re coming here trying to play in front of a new audience,” Merrill says. “They’re already facing the reality that at the end of the tour, they’re going to have less money in their bank accounts. They know [touring here is] a loss, but they’re making an investment in their future. This kind of thing makes that whole process more difficult for them.”
“It’s all very disheartening,” Wattie says. “Bands at our level don’t make much, but the U.S. government seems to assume that anyone going on tour is playing Live Nation types of shows. U.S. residents can play all over the world with much ease, usually not having to get any visas at all. Yet to enter your country, everyone has to deal with this.”
Tortolero can think of several groups who made their Chicago debuts at the WMF and came back to play larger venues or festivals for sold-out crowds—including Tinariwen and punk band Gogol Bordello (though based in New York, they have members abroad).
“The community thrives when it’s able to experience the full spectrum of stuff that’s coming from all over the world,” Merrill says. “I think it hurts our community when we’re limited to experiencing stuff from a certain geographical area.”
Covey encourages U.S. artists and concert lovers to call their representatives and comment on the Federal Register. “They propose this, and now they’re saying, ‘OK, world—what do you think of it?’” he says. “A lot of the advocacy we’re doing is working with arts organizations, stakeholders within the performing arts community, to assemble and submit and make sure that the [comments from] constituencies of arts organizations are in the thousands.”
Time is of the essence—once again, the deadline to comment is March 13. “I see [a rate hike] deeply affecting independent, DIY, and smaller-scale shows for everyone,” Wattie says. “It’s a continuum of what is already happening with the music ‘industry.’ The big bands will continue doing fine, while all the little guys will continue to see if pursuing music is even worth it.”
Update on Mon 3/6, 3 PM: This story has been updated to correct the roles and positions credited to Carlos Tortolero.