On Thursday afternoon, musician Felix Walworth of the Brooklyn-based indie rock band Told Slant posted on Twitter that the band would be cancelling its SXSW performance over language found in the contract. Walworth posted an image that includes two different parts of the contract, both of which deal with international artists and how SXSW enforces the exclusivity part of its agreement with showcasing artists.
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
Walworth followed the tweet with a call urging fellow artists to cancel their SXSW performances.
SXSW responded quickly. Festival managing director Roland Swenson told the Austin American-Statesman that “the language posted to Twitter comes from ‘two different parts of the artist agreement’ that were pasted together to portray what he called ‘a much worse impression than what is real.'”
It’s true that Walworth pasted together two different parts of the agreement. The part that ends with “SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions” is at the end of the contract; the part that begins with “International artists entering the country through the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), B visa, or any non-work visa may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival DAY OR NIGHT shows in Austin from March 13-19, 2017” is from the previous section of the contract.
Taken together, those statements suggest that SXSW is threatening artists who perform at unofficial events in Austin during the dates of the music conference with deportation. A look at the actual contract makes that a little less clear. But “SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions” does appear in the contract, and the actions the festival is referring to can be anything that SXSW deems (“in its sole discretion”) to “adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.” Per the terms of the contract, that can include “accepting invitations for an excessive number of unofficial SXSW shows.”
The other part of the contract reads more instructively. Many artists who travel to Austin from other countries to play SXSW shows are doing so through a visa waiver program that prevents them from earning money for their performances. That’s not SXSW keeping them from getting paid, that’s the U.S. government doing so, and Swenson told the Statesman that those restrictions are in place to help artists navigate the legal terrain they’d have to clear in order to work—i.e., perform for money—in the U.S. during the festival.
The problem, of course, is that even if you accept that the notice that artists who violate their visas are subject to deportation is there simply to educate artists on the risks of violating the terms of their visas, SXSW is still reserving the right to call immigration officials on artists who “adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.”
A statement issued by Swenson says that the warning “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.” In his Statesman interview, Swenson added “if they killed somebody” to the list of things that might get SXSW to call ICE.
Of course, there are other avenues available to SXSW in the event that a participating artist kills somebody or blows up the stage or starts a riot. They could, for example, call the police. SXSW didn’t immediately respond to questions about why they single out immigration as a responding agency, nor why the agreement only cites the example of “accepting invitations for an excessive number of unofficial SXSW shows.”
Swenson notes in his statement that “given the current political climate surrounding immigration, the language that was published seems strong,” and it’s fair to note that conflating SXSW’s talk of contacting immigration authorities with ICE raids and other deportations is misleading. SXSW isn’t threatening to break up undocumented families with children who were brought here as babies, they’re talking to musicians who are only planning to be in the U.S. for a short time to play music over the course of a week. The timing is unfortunate, given the nature and tenor of the ongoing national dialogue about immigration enforcement, but the immigration circumstances of a band visiting from the U.K. shouldn’t be compared to those of a family who’s been living in Austin for 15 years.
This isn’t the first time the immigration issue has come up for SXSW, but it certainly has never attracted such widespread attention. In 2015, Joey DeFrancesco of the Providence, Rhode Island-based Downtown Boys noted the language that appeared in the contract on Twitter, as well.
doing SXSW paperwork rn–they threaten 2 "immediately deport" any international artist who plays an "unofficial" show pic.twitter.com/JrjrBVURhM
— Joey L DeFrancesco (@JoeyQuits) October 3, 2015
Swenson stressed that the policy has never been enforced. SXSW has never contacted immigration officials in order to tell them that a band visiting for the festival violated their visa.
Ultimately, the language in the contract seems intended as a subtle (or not-so-subtle) discouragement from playing too many unofficial shows, which is something the festival has long made efforts to rein in. In 2014, SXSW published a paper suggesting that it might pursue a “clean zone” in downtown Austin in March, similar to the one that downtown Houston saw during Super Bowl weekend, or other major events that occur over centralized parts of a city during a short period of time. After critics responded, SXSW backed away from the report they’d commissioned that suggested such a measure, and instead urged the city of Austin to “put a limit on the number of permits issued for events that require temporary permits, based on location, capacity and infrastructure”—which the city did. At another political moment, language about contacting immigration officials would read like the sort of empty threat that SXSW has, and is likely to continue, to leave unenforced. But right now, given the climate around immigration authorities and deportations, for many it’s a bad look.