Bye-bye American pie: high price of visas keeps British musicians off US tours | UK news3 min read
“Breaking” America has been the goal of young British musicians since the days of Beatlemania, but that dream is being dashed. Hundreds of emerging artists could be affected by plans to hike visa fees by 250% – and music industry executives have criticised ministers for failing to act.
The US immigration service wants to raise visa costs from $460 (£385) to $1,615 (£1,352) alongside other changes that artists and their managers say would make it almost impossible for anyone but the biggest stars to perform in the US.
Artists already struggling with Brexit red tape and the impact of the pandemic lockdowns are also being affected by inflation, with a 40% rise in the cost of touring, according to the Music Managers Forum (MMF) and the Featured Artists Coalition (Fac).
The MMF and Fac have relaunched Let the Music Move (#LetTheMusicMove), a campaign that began in 2021 to fight the effects of post-Brexit trade arrangements, which are still hampering musicians. Trucking firms that transport music equipment have had to register as EU companies, and crew cannot work in the EU for more than 90 days out of every 180. Many firms left the industry during the pandemic.
Annabella Coldrick, the MMF’s chief executive, said a survey of her members last week revealed that 84% had acts planning to tour the US. Of those, 70% would be unable to do so with the proposed fee increase, while 20% said they would delay.
David Martin, Fac chief executive, said: “It’s already extremely challenging to go to the US, and this is going to hugely impact the talent pipeline who have already had a terrible time over the last three years. This is another dent in the ability to nurture that talent coming through from early stage to mid-career.”
Martin said the UK’s global share of recorded music has fallen from 17% in 2015 to just 10% after increased competition from Latin American music and K-pop. “They gave the fishing industry £23m to adjust post-Brexit, and the music industry is about 12 or 13 times bigger for this country,” he added.
The US immigration service, USCIS, is consulting on the decision until 6 March, but Coldrick said she was disappointed that no minister or diplomat had yet intervened: “The immediate reaction was a bit: ‘Oh, it’s America, isn’t it, we have no influence. It’s always been difficult with them’.”
Last week, culture minister Julia Lopez said the government “cannot interfere in another country’s processes and must respect their systems” after being asked by Labour MP Kevin Brennan in a parliamentary question if ministers would ask their counterparts to reconsider.
Performers in the early to mid stages of their careers often tour the US or Europe – the two biggest markets for British music – to build a fanbase but lose money in the process.
“People hear artists on Radio 6 Music or Radio 1 and think they’re famous and doing OK,” said Michael Lambert, whose management firm represents acts including Fatherson and Idlewild. “But more often than not they’re touring at a marginal profit or potentially at a loss.”
Lambert also leads the official Scottish presence at South by Southwest (SXSW), the festival in Austin, Texas, where 13 Scottish acts will perform next month, from bagpipe players and folk musicians to Mercury shortlisted jazz pianist Fergus McCreadie. But he believes there is a risk to future artists.
Warmduscher, a post-punk London band that has released four albums, has also been invited to play SXSW. It would be their first US gig, but they have been forced to launch a crowdfunding campaign to raise £6,000 for travel, visas and accommodation.
“To get stuck into the land of stars and stripes has been our dream since we started this crazy adventure,” they told fans. “It’s expensive shit touring and our fees aren’t quite cutting the mustard as it’s a promo tour.”
Simone Marie Butler, bass guitarist with Primal Scream, said: “You can make a career in the UK, but really you need to tour Europe and America. For bands that aren’t even able to get out there, their chances are decreased from the outset.”
Brian Message, who manages Nick Cave and PJ Harvey, said: “All those young bands went out and toured America when the costs were nothing like this, and to my mind American culture has benefited hugely – the hundreds of thousands of people who loved those bands going over and playing.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are aware of the issues regarding UK artists touring the US and will discuss the sector’s concerns with the relevant authorities.”