In early March 2017, musicians began posting images of their contracts for the South-by-Southwest (better known as SXSW) music festival scheduled to kick off on 10 March 2017 in Austin, Texas, pointing out language that appeared to say festival directors would call U.S. immigration officials on foreign artists who violated festival rules.
The uproar began when Felix Walworth, a member of the New York band Told Slant, noticed the contractual language and posted screen shots of it, along with an outraged message about canceling his band's performance at the festival, to Twitter:
After looking through this contract sent to me by sxsw I have decided to cancel Told Slant's performance at the festival pic.twitter.com/rI2Xv0duJl
— Told Slant (@Felixixix666) March 2, 2017
Can our first step toward coalition as artists with radical politics be to cancel all our official showcases at sxsw? I'm serious just do it
— Told Slant (@Felixixix666) March 2, 2017
Walworth hasn't responded to our request for comment, but his tweet caused an outpouring of outrage among other performers. Dozens of artists, including Downtown Boys and comedian Hari Kondabolu, penned an open letter demanding the language in the contract be rescinded and an apology be issued:
As artists and part of the musical community of SXSW, we’re outraged to learn that the festival has been threatening artists who are not U.S. citizens with targeted immigration enforcement and deportation for playing at unofficial showcases. In light of recent attacks on immigrant communities, this practice is particularly chilling. We are calling on SXSW to immediately drop this clause from their contract, and cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger.
Austin, TX is a sanctuary city and these actions by SXSW show a disrespect for municipal policy. SXSW is a well respected institution and has a responsibility to show leadership by refusing to collaborate with the government’s campaign of fear and hate toward non-citizens.
SXSW representatives also haven't yet responded to our request for comment, but SXSW CEO and co-founder Roland Swenson sent a statement to numerous news outlets saying the language has been in the contract for years, and festival organizers have never invoked it to report any performer to immigration authorities:
We understand that given the current political climate surrounding immigration, the language that was published seems strong. Violating U.S. immigration law has always carried potentially severe consequences, and we would be remiss not to warn our participating acts of the likely repercussions. Language governing SXSW's ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist Performance Agreement for many years. It is, and always was intended to be, a safeguard to provide SXSW with a means to respond to an act that does something truly egregious, such as disobeying our rules about pyrotechnics on stage, starting a brawl in a club, or causing serious safety issues.
Brian Goldstein, an entertainment attorney with the firm Goldstein & Guilliams whom we consulted, called the rebuttal "clueless" but added he didn't think the contract's wording was done for nefarious purposes. Instead, he believed it was thrown into the contract at some point and no one reviewed it until 2017, when the political climate surrounding immigrants and U.S. entry restrictions heightened interest in it:
Internationally, this has caused great panic, and we’re dealing with phone calls every day from artists who are just panicking. They’re scared because they don’t know what’s coming next. This does not help.
A good deal of confusion already exists over what international performers can and can't do legally, because the United States is unusual among countries in requiring that performers acquire O-1 artist's visas whether or not they will be paid for their performances, Goldstein said. Additionally, established performers such as opera singers have managers who handle the details of their tours (including acquiring the correct visas), whereas artists who play at SXSW tend to be more independent and up-and-coming.
Goldstein added the language in the contract was unusually harsh and said it was "certainly clueless of the [organizers] not to have checked this out in the light of all the craziness that’s going on."