The special relationship between the UK and the USA has been the backbone of international post war pop culture. From Elvis to the Beatles and the Stones back to the Byrds and Bob Dylan, from Motown to the Who, from psychedelia to the Kinks, from Black Sabbath to Nirvana, from heavy metal to punk, from disco to acid house, from new romantics to modern pop – the story of pop music has been the flow of ideas back and forth across the Atlantic cross-pollinating pop culture.
But it’s a relationship that has to be nurtured. And it’s currently being stifled at the roots by the unworkable and expensive visa situation for British bands wanting to play in the USA.
The cost alone can be prohibitive. Getting a British group into America can cost up to ÃÂ£2700, and that’s not counting travel and accommodation expenses for bands outside London who have to travel down for the 8am interview at the US embassy: an interview that usually, after hours spent hanging around lasts all of five minutes. The equivalent costs for an orchestra would of course be much, much more. Indeed, the Manchester based Halle Orchestra had to cancel its plans to perform in the States because of this.
Aside from the cost, musicians find the application process complicated, confusing and unpredictable. This results in mistakes on all sides, lengthy delays and escalating costs as bands and management become increasingly desperate to expedite visas on time. Even if the band completes the application process correctly by using an expensive New York based agent the American visa authorities can throw further curveballs by adding extra questions and a second round of enquiries, like insisting on one British band proving why they needed a British instead of an American drummer, which meant that they had to postpone their tour by two months.
This means bands can’t confirm gigs or book plane tickets until the last minute, and at worst, tours are being cancelled or postponed. Not only do they miss out on US tour dates; they also miss out on other bookings they’ve turned down because they thought/ hoped they’d be in the States. And if their visa applications do get rejected, they don’t get the money back.
And it’s not only the British bands that are having problems, American based promoters and gig agents are unhappy. One of the biggest promoters in the Eastern US – told us of the “double-digit” losses some of their venues have suffered from having to cancel shows. Twelve bands had to drop out of this year’s SXSW – the industry’s biggest showcase – while many of the 136 who did attend reported difficulties and delays in getting their visas on time. Some have resorted to entering the US illegally, borrowing equipment when they get there. But if they get caught, it’s a ten year ban and their career in the States is effectively over. In comparison, when US bands and orchestras are playing at a recognised festivals (such as the Proms, Glastonbury) they can in effect bypass the usual visa system and be approved through a special, much swifter process.
With the backing of the Musicians Union, the Association of Independent Music (the trade organisation for independent record labels and distributors), the Music Managers Forum and the Association of British Orchestras, as well as artists and record labels, we’re campaigning for change. We went to see the Culture Minister, Ed Vaizey, and he’s agreed to help us get a face to face meeting with the US Embassy. We’re also working with UK Music and UKTI’s Music Exports Group, who recognise that this is a problem.
It’s not just British artists that are affected. The Canadian Independent Music Association, the Australian Performing Rights Association, Music Export Germany and Norway, Initiative Music gGmbH, Swiss Music Export, Brasil Music Exchange, and the Austrian Music Ambassador Network are among those who are known to be pursing this problem with their national governments.
The Anglo-American creative axis is the backbone of 21st century pop culture. It’s one of the fundamental ties in the ‘special relationship’. Both countries have helped to nurture and influence each other’s great music. It’s a relationship we would like to see continue, but with a level playing field that sees British musicians given the same sort of treatment as Americans musicians travelling to the UK. A flow of ideas and culture between the two nations empowers and enriches both of them, and is an example to the free world of the advantages of a more open cultural trading partnership.