SXSW Immigration Issue Exposes Deeper Problem of Restriction and Control

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The hyperventilating, overly-sensitive, well-meaning, yet totally-misguided forces that feel the need to diametrically oppose anything and everything that can somehow be loosely tied however incidentally to the Trump Administration have claimed yet another victim in the musical realm.

This time it is South By Southwest, or SXSW for short—the annual irresponsibly-managed t-totaled clusterfuck that transpires in Austin, TX every mid-March that is smutted up with the most indecent of marquee-level corporate brands like McDonald’s, and comprises the singlemost perfect example of why Austin music has become a mayhem of ill-planning resulting in nothing more than obscene profits for a fortunate few, annually exporting a bad taste in nearly everyone’s mouth about the state of Austin music, and all under the guise of somehow helping musicians.

The kerfuffle this time surrounds a stipulation in the SXSW bylaws that warns foreign performers about the consequences of misbehavior, specifically playing non-sanctioned SXSW events without the proper documentation. This provision, which apparently has been in the performer rules for many years, states:

If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that showcasing acts or their representatives have acted in ways that adversley affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:

–Artist will be removed from their official showcase and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.

–Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled

–Artists credentials will be canceled.

–SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.

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 March 13-19, 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.

This provision was not added in solidarity to Trump’s recent immigration actions, it was actually added years ago as a warning to visiting artists from foreign countries of how to keep their nose clean while they’re in the United States. Long story short, a foreign performer can get clearance to enter the United States to play a showcase at South by Southwest without obtaining a proper work visa because they’re not really working, they’re just showcasing their music. Though many regard SXSW as a music festival, it’s actually not that at all. It is a series of showcases where artists look to present their music to the media and industry in hopes of finding folks to help support them.

However if you play unofficial showcases (of which there are many, and it’s common for SXSW attendees to participate in), then it can be construed that you are actually working in the United States (meaning making money for your services), and this could put you in harms way of being deported, or not even allowed to enter the United States. Or, if you do not play your official SXSW showcase because you have violated other rules, then this could also get you in trouble with immigration, and SXSW COULD notify them. They’re warning participants not to screw up and run the risk of breaking international labor laws. SXSW has also said they’ve never had to activate this particular rule, nor are they in communication with immigration officials.

This immigration rule is probably something lawyers insisted be in the regulations to not put SXSW in a position of legal blowback just in case they do ever have to activate it. It’s basically a “Dude, don’t leave your weed in the ashtray. Put it in your sock for crying out loud.”

But that doesn’t mean SXSW isn’t without blame. Inadvertently, the embroglio over their artist rules on immigration have exposed a much deeper issue with the SXSW organization that artists have complained about for over a decade, but has never had proper exposure through the mainstream media like this immigration issue has allowed.

Not only does SXSW require official performers to pay the organization for the right just to be considered to be able to play the event (that’s right, most performers don’t get paid to render their services, it’s vice versa, and some pay and still get denied), but official performers must adhere to extremely restrictive, bordering on draconian regulations while they’re in Austin, or risk losing their performance slots, credentials, housing for the event (which is extremely hard to come by), or hypothetically, their right to even be in the country.

Beyond the above rules, it’s the language, “If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion” that gives SXSW carte blanche control over artists while they’re participating in the event. If somehow, someone in a band’s traveling party has done something or anything wrong—arbitrarily decided by SXSW—the consequences can be massive. So basically you can have paid for the right to participate in SXSW, traveled from Europe and spent thousands of dollars on expenses to get there, and then your merch guy gets drunk as some showcase, pisses in a potted plant, and next thing you know you’re getting ICE called on you.

Thought SXSW may have never used the immigration provision (according to them), there are certainly plenty of anecdotal stories over the years of bands having official showcases canceled and/or getting kicked out of their hotel rooms over a simple misunderstanding, especially when the rules performers are expected to adhere to are so lengthy, so involved, so restrictive, and are all chased with the catch-all “If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion.” And this isn’t just about behavior. Parking in the wrong place, accidentally losing your official wristband, or other simple reasons have resulted in artists not being able to play and other nightmarish scenarios.

SXSW asks its participants to navigate extremely painful and restrictive hurdles throughout their stay in Austin, and use the fear of expulsion, and even deportation, to keep these poor participants, who’ve paid to be there, in line. And lets at least mention that these are musicians, who by nature are predisposed to weird, and sometimes unruly behavior, and are naturally inclined to rebel against rules, of which SXSW has an inordinate amount of.

This is one of many reasons so many non-sanctioned SXSW events have sprouted up all over Austin during the annual gathering, because so many artists don’t want to be treated like cattle, and interface with an organization that uses fear and restrictive rules to keep participants in line. If SXSW would treat people like humans instead of a commodity to generate egregious amounts of profits from corporate sponsors, perhaps they could have controlled the size and scope of SXSW. Instead it has become such an unruly mob in the middle of an already poorly-planned and overcrowded city, it is a nightmarish experience for all involved.

And this doesn’t just apply to musical participants. Remember, the idea of SXSW is for up-and-coming talent to find representation in the industry and a larger audience. The media plays a pivotal role in this relationship. But just like the performers, the media is expected to go through a vetting, approval, and command and control process that would make the Trump Administration salivate over the level of restriction they can place on what are supposed to be independent media entities.

To apply to officially cover SXSW as media, you must not only submit previous coverage of the festival (even if you’ve never been officially approved), and then afterwards, you must turn in any articles you have written on the event. It is a systematical way to weed out negative coverage of SXSW and institutionally restrict who can cover the event in an official capacity. Similarly to the performers, this is the reason so much media circumvents SXSW, and instead focuses on non-official participants and events, allowing the scope of the event to get even further out of control.

Making this issue even more crazy is the fact that SXSW is owned (or owns) The Austin Chronicle—which is the primary musical news source in Austin. When official SXSW artist Told Slant started this whole issue of SXSW and immigration by tweeting out the immigration warning in their rules, SXSW Managing Director Roland Swenson responded through The Austin Chronicle to the accusations, and actually accused Told Slant of chopping up separate portions of the rules to make the immigration stipulation look worse than it was. THIS WAS PROVEN TO BE UNTRUE. Told Slant had not altered the rules, and this mistruth by SXSW told through The Austin Chronicle (which they own) is one of the things that sent the issue into hyperdrive.

SXSW has since recanted the accusation that Todd Slant doctored the rules, but they still say Todd Slant is misunderstanding the immigration provision. But the immigration rule is quite clear. It states, “SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities.” What SXSW is saying in their defense is that they have never, nor will ever use it. So why is it there in the first place? The answer is, SXSW is using fear over participants to get them to adhere to their very restrictive policies.

Todd Slant may be overreacting to the rule in regards to how it interfaces with current politics, but he’s exactly right in this portion of a statement he released Thursday (3-2) surrounding the issue:

this festival uses an imperialist model and prioritizes centralizing and packaging culture over communities & people’s safety […] it’s no secret that sxsw has played a huge role in the process austin’s rapid gentrification. the whole festival exists to the detriment of working class people & people of color 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.

Yes, the immigration rule may be nothing new, may have been put in there just to warn participants about what could happen if they play too much without a work visa, and may have never been enforced in previous years. Yes, every event like this needs some rules and codes of conduct. But the fact that the deportation threat is even in there, and this culture of control and fear is how SXSW operates, is the underlying problem. And finally this immigration issue has exposed this restrictive SXSW culture to the wide masses, despite it being something participants and Austinites have been screaming about for many years.

SXSW is an irresponsible mess that puts artists, media, industry, and local citizens in inhumane, and sometimes dangerous positions, even without activating any immigration rules. And hopefully this issue will expose the culture of control that ironically has allowed the event to get completely out of control, and will hopefully encourage SXSW to reform.