Why The Artist Visa Hike Is A ‘Lose-Lose’ Proposition

Nothing’s ever normal for long.

After two-plus years of pandemic-related barriers and economic Sturm und Drang, tour announcements for international acts started to churn off the conveyor belt in the waning months of 2022. 

The glut of tours and the packed calendars that came with the initial paroxysm of the return to business eased, the business settling back into a regular rhythm.

EVERYWHERE YOU WANT TO BE: A United States Department of Homeland Security Visa Application. A proposed DHS change would raise the cost of a visa for touring musicians by 250 percent. Photo by Douglas Sacha / Getty Images

With the East Asian democracies lifting the last of their most burdensome COVID-connected restrictions late last year, acts from across both of the big oceans could finally head to the United States.

It’s a new normal, but normal nonetheless.

Until it’s not.

The Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service announced a proposal to dramatically increase the fees associated with the most common types of visas used by touring acts. 

Under the proposed change, the cost of a petition for an O-type visa would leap from $460 to $1,655, a 260 percent increase. For a P-type visa, the petition fee would jump from $460 to $1,615, a 251 percent bump. 

Both increases are fueled by a $600 charge aimed at funding the U.S.’s asylum regime.

DHS and USCIS said the surcharge is necessary because of the Biden Administration’s desire to set up a special parole program for asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and Nicaragua. 

“They are pitting two issues against one another,” U.S. Rep. Maxwell Frost, a freshman Democrat from Florida, tells Pollstar. “What they are saying is the increase is due to capacity issues because of the parole program. That’s a great program, but we can’t pit issues against each other.”

Frost — at 26, the youngest member of Congress and almost certainly the only member of the House of Representatives who worked at Coachella — says it’s faulty reasoning by the agencies, because many would-be visa-seekers will, faced with the extreme price escalation, instead become won’t-be seekers.

“It’s just going to be a large group of artists who aren’t coming,” he says. “It’ll probably just even out and be a lose/lose situation. … USCIS isn’t going to get what they are looking for.”

Outside of that, raising up-front costs will stanch the revived currents of cultural exchange that have been dammed in quarantine for two years.

“It will have unintended negative consequences and beat down an industry that’s coming back,” Frost says. “What tour managers and agents are telling us is that there’s going to be a ton of artists who are gonna be priced out.

“When we talk about artists doing 2,000-caps and up – it’ll be annoying to them, but there’s a large group of artists who just won’t be able to come. You are already going into the red touring and you are praying you can break even, so there’s a lot of artists who just won’t tour. We are a melting pot and when an artist comes by, they are part of Orlando and they are part of our culture.”

Frost was the lead signatory on a letter from nine House Democrats, including fellow members of the House Government Oversight Committee, to USCIS Director Ur Jaddou opposing the change. 

Rep. Maxwell Frost 118th Congress
Rep. Maxwell Frost

“We, alongside thousands of artists and arts organizations who have raised their voice on in opposition to the proposal, know that fee increases of this magnitude would devastate local arts organizations and make it impossible for them to engage with international artists,” the letter read, in part. “Many arts entities are concerned that their ability to afford these fees has been significantly overestimated in the proposed rule and are alarmed at the prospect of visa fees more than tripling in size.”

Proponents of the change argue that visa fees are, in many cases, paid by would-be sponsors, but, as Frost points out, in those cases, it’s more likely the promoter or venue would simply pass the increased expense on to the consumer with higher ticket prices.

Erika Elliott, executive artistic director of New York’s City Parks Foundation, said there’s other tweaks in the DHS/USCIS proposal that have programmers worried. Namely, it would also limit the number of applicants on a single petition to 25 people. A 125-member orchestra would require five separate petitions, rather than just one, as it stands under the current rule.

“The current concern that me and my colleagues are worried about are additional barriers to international acts coming to play the U.S.. There’s already so many barriers — it’s not an easy process already,” she tells Pollstar. “For, say, orchestras and dance companies, the costs could be triple what they were prior. These are groups that are working with a limited budgetary capacity.”

When the proposal first became public, Elliott said there was a spasm from international acts trying to finalize booking in the U.S. so they could get their visas squared away before the increase hit. That’s eased, she says, as it became apparent that the bureaucracy wouldn’t act swiftly on the matter, but there’s still discomfort about what may be coming down the pike.

“It’s the uncertainty. There’s a proposal that’s been handed down that’s not been vetted and it’s not engaged with cultural institutions,” she says. “There’s fragility with non-profits and cultural organizations and international artists, so any change is a barrier. It’s disheartening when we are trying to rebuild.”

It’s easy to focus on prominent artists and major venues and public-facing institutions. But, as Frost says, there’s a lot more to the industry than, say, Harry Styles at Madison Square Garden.

“We have to think about our small venues … It can lead to fewer shows and more expensive tickets,” the Central Florida lawmaker says. “It’s going to negatively impact musicians and artists. I have a lot of theme parks in my district. It’s gonna impact the activity and hamper this exchange of culture.  A lot of labels bring over foreign producers and songwriters. It takes away our ability to be the cultural hub of the world.”

For now, Frost is hopeful the letter will have its desired effect. Fee increases on O and P visas — and the precursor H-1B visa — have been proposed before. In the past, the messaging in favor of the fee increases focused on superstar athletes and movie stars, who are also covered under the same scheme. In other words, the federal agencies want people to believe it’s multimillionaires actors, billionaire sports team owners and faceless film studios who will be bearing the burden. 

230221 Pollstar Day1 MM 1369
Erika Elliott at Pollstar Live 2023.

But there’s always voices — both in the U.S. and abroad — who raise the alarm for the overwhelming majority of applicants who are hard-working, get-in-the-bus performers. 

In this round, U.K.-based agents and managers are the key foreign voices, in large part because the effects Brexit, along with the inflation nearly every economy on earth has had to cope with, has already had on British acts’ ability to tour profitably. Little Simz, for example, canceled a U.S. tour, citing cost. A survey commissioned by U.K. trade groups the Music Managers Forum and Featured Artists Coalition found that 70 percent of their members don’t believe they’d be able to afford U.S. tours if the visa changes go into place.

Public and industry pressure has been enough to stave off past proposed increases and Frost is optimistic it’ll come to pass the same way this time.

“We hope they’ll pay close attention to it. I can see folks from across the aisle signing on with us, but the goal isn’t to get to that level. They’ve proposed this increase in the past and it’s never happened because of the backlash. I’m confident we’ll be able to do it,” he says.

Elliott says it’s important to remember it’s not just the potential for lost dollars. It’s the chance that lives will be dimmer and duller because of the lack of cultural exchange.

“In performing arts and arts and culture spaces, we’ve been so deeply hard hit. We are just trying to come back. We are coming back to life and culture is at the center of it,” she says.