Yesterday, a tweet by musician Felix Walworth set off a storm of controversy online, stating that Walworth would be canceling their appearance as a member of Told Slant at the festival, thanks to a clause in the artist contract saying that the festival could refer international artists to immigration for playing unofficial shows at the festival. (Unofficial shows are common practice at SXSW, with some artists playing multiple shows a day.)
The clause was not new—it had been part of SXSW contracts since 2013—and SXSW managing director Roland Swenson said that it would only be invoked if “if somebody did something really horrific, like disobey rules about pyrotechnics, starting a brawl, or if they killed somebody.” Later in the day, Swenson released a lengthy statement explaining the festival’s logic that reads, in part, “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.”
But Walworth’s protest took on new resonance in the current climate of fear surrounding the Trump administration’s stance on immigration, and Downtown Boys, PWR BTTM, Priests, Screaming Females, Immortal Technique, Sheer Mag, Girlpool, and Allison Crutchfield were among the dozens of musicians who released an open letter calling for SXSW to remove the language from the contract, apologize, and affirm SXSW as “a welcoming space for all artists, including immigrants and international performers.”
And according to a statement from the festival printed in Stereogum, SXSW is now promising to review and amend the clause in its 2018 festival contracts. Walworth and the artists who signed the open letter have yet to comment on this new development in the situation, but you can read SXSW’s statement in full below.
SXSW opposes discrimination of any kind, and has taken a public stand against President Trump’s travel ban and proposed legislation like SB6 in Texas. We have and will continue to support human rights for all. In this political climate, especially as it relates to immigration, we recognize the heightened importance of standing together against injustice.
SXSW has never reported anyone to any immigration authorities, including Customs & Border Protection (CBP), the agency that deals with participating artists entering the United States.
Participation from individuals and organizations who bring a different perspective — especially those who travel from all over the world — to Austin each March is what makes SXSW a special event.
We have been coordinating with international acts coming to SXSW to try and mitigate issues at U.S. ports of entry, and will continue to build a coalition of attorneys to assist any who face problems upon arrival in the States.
The language in our Performance Agreement is intended to facilitate U.S. entry for international artists and to show CBP that SXSW takes visa issues seriously. This language has been part of the contracts since the summer of 2013, and we will be reviewing and amending it for 2018 and beyond.
In regards to the situation surrounding Told Slant, before we had clarity on the situation we believed this artist had taken our language out of context. We apologize for this error.
A major reason for SXSW’s existence is the discovery of new and exciting artists from around the world, and our hope is that we can help these creative people achieve their goals.
UPDATE: Members of Downtown Boys, Evan Greer, and Priests have responded to SXSW’s statement, calling it both “xenophobic” and “utterly misleading,” and citing the language about foreign bands causing problems with pyrotechnics or violence as especially worthy of being called out. The bands also stated that, while the promise to review the clause was a step in the right direction, “To do right by artists, the organizers must clearly state that they plan to remove the clause from the contract in the future, and that they won’t enforce it for artists already scheduled this year.” You can read the full statement below:
This week, a musician who was scheduled to perform at SXSW revealed that the festival contract included a section that threatens international artists with “immediate deportation” if they perform at unofficial events during the festival week.
News reports about the policy drew swift backlash from the music community. Hundreds of people have already signed an online petition, and dozens of well known artists released an open letter calling for the festival to drop the clause and apologize to the musicians targeted.
SXSW’s CEO, Roland Swenson, first responded to the controversy late last night, claiming that it’s all just a “misunderstanding.” His inadequate response adds insult to injury for artists, especially those who are not U.S. citizens who his multimillion-dollar festival has been threatening.
A second statement from SXSW, just released this afternoon, claims the festival will be “reviewing and amending” their contract language for 2018. This is a positive development, but the festival has still offered no concrete plans for how the language will be changed. To do right by artists, the organizers must clearly state that they plan to remove the clause from the contract in the future, and that they won’t enforce it for artists already scheduled this year.
“Language governing SXSW’s ability to protect a showcase has been in the artist performance agreement for many years,” Swenson notes, pointing out that the offending clause in the contract is not new. That’s true, but that doesn’t make it any less problematic. It’s hard to imagine something more chilling than a private corporation using the threat of immigration enforcement to frighten artists that they are employing into compliance.
He goes on to say that the deportation threat is simply “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.”
This is where his statement goes from insensitive to utterly misleading. Not only is he playing into the xenophobia emanating from the White House by raising the spectre of unruly or criminal acts by non-US bands, he’s blatantly misrepresenting what the clause says and its intended use.
Starting a brawl in a club is already illegal. If an artist were to do that, there is a clear way that the legal system and immigration officials would deal with it. There is no need for a contract clause like this to prevent that, and absolutely nothing requiring SXSW to narc on bands who are at risk for deportation.
The sections of the contract in question say nothing about violence or disruptive behavior. They’re clearly intended to scare performers away from playing at unofficial shows that the festival sees as potentially damaging to their profits. Here are the relevant passages:
“If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:
- Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.
- Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.
- Artist’s credentials will be canceled.
- SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.
1.4. Foreign Artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or unofficial shows, DAY OR NIGHT, in Austin from March 10-19, 2017. Accepting and performing at unofficial events (including unofficial events aside from SXSW Music dates during their visit to the United States) may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US ports of entry.”
Perhaps worried that his foot was not yet far enough in his mouth, Swensen then tries to claim that the threatening language is there for the artists’ own good. “Violating U.S. immigration law has always carried potentially severe consequences,” he says, “we would be remiss not to warn our participating acts of the likely repercussions.”
You don’t have to be an immigration lawyer to read the contract above and know that it’s a threat and not a friendly heads up. SXSW isn’t just warning bands that immigration officials might find out if they break the rules, they’re telling them they’ll rat them out, and collude with Border and Customs Patrol to punish them if they play at events that aren’t making the festival money.
Finally, Swensen points to the festival’s opposition to Donald Trump’s immigration ban, and offers some vague acknowledgment that the language seems so draconian against the backdrop.
But in a time when the Federal Government is targeting non-citizens and freedom of expression is under attack, what artists need from SXSW is not empty words and promises for the future. We need them to remove the threatening clauses from their contract, apologize to the artists, and commit to doing everything in their power to protect the people who make their festival awesome from overzealous immigration authorities. Musicians are talking, organizing, and getting ready to fight. It’s time for SXSW to listen.