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What at first seemed like a standard bit of legalese has now created a controversy. The language appears in the contracts given to artists performing at this year's South by Southwest music festival. Musicians accuse the festival of threatening foreign performers with deportation if they play outside of the festival's official venues. NPR's Anastasia Tsioulcas untangles the situation.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: For foreigners, getting a visa to visit the United States can be pretty complicated. And for musicians hoping to introduce themselves to an American audience, figuring out exactly what kind of visa they need and what they can do while they're here can be even more confusing. Leena Khandwala, an immigration attorney based in New York, explains the basics.
LEENA KHANDWALA: So tourist visas are for foreign nationals who are visiting the United States temporarily for business or pleasure.
TSIOULCAS: People here on those visas or who are from one of the nearly 40 countries who don't need a visa to visit the U.S. can do a bit of soliciting of new business while they're here.
KHANDWALA: Such as meeting with clients, attending a conference or a convention, you know, negotiating a contract, attending a board meeting, those kinds of activities.
TSIOULCAS: And that could include doing one official performance at South by Southwest, one of the world's premier platforms for musicians. But if they want to do more, Khandwala says, foreign performers need another kind of visa.
KHANDWALA: If they were coming on a tour, they would have to have an employment type of non-immigrant visa, an O visa or a P visa.
TSIOULCAS: For years, the South by Southwest artist contract has contained language outlining those visa basics and outlining what could happen if musicians break the rules. That's according to Roland Swensen, the festival's CEO and one of its co-founders.
ROLAND SWENSON: We gave the artists like a list of, if you violate your visa, these are the things that could happen. And that's being interpreted as, this is what we're going to do to you.
TSIOULCAS: Off the record, people who work in the touring industry say that seeing these kinds of clauses in artist contracts is not uncommon anymore. But yesterday afternoon, a drummer named Felix Walworth canceled a South by Southwest showcase via Twitter, objecting to the contract language. Walworth did not respond to NPR's request for an interview.
But a number of other artists have signed an open letter calling on the festival to, in their words, cease any collusion with immigration officials that puts performers in danger. Among them is the band PWR BTTM, which is slated to perform at a showcase that NPR is curating at the festival. Another is singer Victoria Ruiz of the band Downtown Boys.
VICTORIA RUIZ: As someone who is very upset with the current political moment and is seeking ways to resist, this seems like a very logical step to take because these artists are the people who make South by Southwest what it is in terms of its art.
TSIOULCAS: The festivals, Roland Swenson says, its longstanding position has only meant to help foreign artists by getting them here using the simplest and cheapest visa.
SWENSON: We've managed to build this event that allows hundreds and hundreds of acts, who are for the most part unknown, to come and play at a festival in the U.S.
TSIOULCAS: Musicians who have signed the open letter are considering whether or not they will withdraw from this year's South by Southwest. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News, New York.
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