I can't believe how quickly these things come around but as I write, Folk Alliance is happening in Kansas and the annual Austin madness that is South by South West (SXSW) is less than four weeks away. I can remember a time when the only real opportunity to showcase a band to an international audience occurred once a year at the MIDEM conference in Cannes; how times have changed. Now it seems that any band in any country that reaches the point where they think they can and should be breaking into new territories is looking for a showcase to perform at. In fact, ironically, sometimes the only way for a UK act to get some interest from the UK music industry is to play at an international showcase outside of the UK! However bonkers that might sound, the fact is that showcasing can really work for an act provided they are at the right stage of development and can also ensure that the right people come to the showcase.
A couple of years back, I collaborated with British Underground and Metal Hammer magazine to put on a heavy metal showcase at SXSW and as a result of that gig, the headline act, Skindread, secured an international record deal. The next year they played the main stage at the Reading festival - so showcasing really worked for them. While I'm bigging up bands, I must just mention another band that I saw at SXSW a couple of years ago, Little Barrie are a fantastic powerhouse three piece and I'm delighted to hear that they have recently secured the opening theme for the Breaking Bad spin-off "Better Call Saul." Great things await that band.
So how easy is it for an act to get on a showcasing bill?
Leaving to one side for the time being the cost, the ideal situation is to be invited to showcase by the organisers. I know of many bands that travel out to Austin with a plan to just find somewhere to gig and hope for the best but this approach most often ends in tears and a large credit card bill. UK acts can get help and financial support through the International Showcase Fund (ISF) which is a funding body supported by the Musicians' Union, PRS for Music Foundation, UK Trade and Investment, Arts Council England and British Underground. The ISF helps bands showcase at events throughout the world (see here for more info: www.britishunderground.net).
Performers travelling to the US to take part in a showcase event will need to think about whether they need a work visa. This is an issue that has caused horrendous problems for performers over the last few years. It should be simple: if you are only performing at a showcase event and you are receiving no money for the performance or any other activity whilst you are in the US then you should be able to use the visa waiver program (ESTA). This is by far the easiest way to enter the US as it costs very little (14 dollars) compared to the lengthy and complicated process of obtaining a work visa which can cost upwards of £1500 if you use an intermediary (which is the easiest and quickest way to obtain a US work visa). The problem is that not all of the border guards who work for the US Department of Homeland Security (yes, it is as scary as it sounds) understand that you don't need a work visa if you are performing exclusively at an unpaid showcase and as a result, every year we hear horror stories about bands and individual performers turned round and sent home when trying to enter the US to showcase. Last year the border guards at Detroit airport were the main culprits. A number of UK acts bound for SXSW were turned around at Detroit and sent home as the border guards either did not believe that the musicians were not going to be undertaking paid work whilst in the US or they simply didn't understand the criteria for the visa waiver program.
There is an even more troubling ancillary problem here. As the MU understands it, the US embassy in London, when considering applications for a work visa, Googles the artist/act to see if they have previously entered the US without a work visa and if they find that they have they reject the application. This is regardless of whether the purpose of the previous visit was to perform at an unpaid showcase event. So, it follows that whilst you may be able to enter the US under the ESTA program, perform at a showcase and return home without any problems, when you next apply for a work visa it may be declined on the basis that you previously entered the US illegally.
Last month I met with the US Department of Homeland Security attaché to the European Union and raised all these issues with him. Fortunately, he was a drummer, and so I got an understanding and accommodating audience. He has promised to investigate all the problems associated with US visas and the visa waiver program with a view to ironing out all of the anomalies. Let's hope that happens soon.
In the meantime, if you are an artist/band travelling out to the US for a showcase under the visa waiver program, when you get to border control in the US remember, no wise cracks, you're here to play an unpaid showcase only and then you will be returning home. Don't carry boxes of CD's with you, put them in your case in the hold if you have to take them. Oh, and if you need a US work visa I hear that the US embassy in Lisbon, Portugal is the easiest and most accommodating place to obtain one. Hello, is that Easyjet? How much for a return flight to Lisbon?