Photograph by Robert MacPherson — AFP/Getty Images

Play with our permission—or else.

By Jeff John Roberts
March 3, 2017

South by Southwest, the popular annual music and tech extravaganza in Austin, Tex., has a major controversy on its hands with a growing number of bands demanding that festival organizers change their policy of notifying U.S. immigration authorities about unauthorized performances by foreign artists.

The uproar began when a member of the group Told Slant tweeted an image of the standard SXSW performance contract and explained that the Brooklyn-based band would no longer perform because of the language in it about musicians from other countries.

The clause in question refers to unauthorized performances by foreign artists. It reads in part (emphasis mine):

SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of artists who adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase … International artists may not perform at any public or non-sanctioned SXSW Music Festival DAY OR NIGHT shows in Austin.. Accepting and performing unofficial events may result in immediate deportation.

In response to publicity over the tweet, SXSW’s CEO Roland Swenson told the Austin Chronicle that it was a “misunderstanding.” He explained the language related to immigration has been in the performance contracts for years, and that the show felt a duty to warn international artists about strict U.S. immigration rules. Swenson added the point of the clause was to protect the event from things like illegal pyrotechnics and brawls, and stated “We hope never to be put in the position to act on this.”

But Swenson’s comment have so far failed to quell the criticism, which comes at a time when the U.S. has adopted a more aggressive policy for deportations under President Donald Trump. In a public letter this week, a number dozens of bands asked the festival organizers to rescind the contract clause, noting that Austin is a so-called “sanctuary city.”

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“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,” the letter, signed by bands including Downtown Boys and Priests, states in part.

So far, though, the fuss over the SXSW immigration rules appears to be contained within the music community. The annual festival, which runs for around eight days every March, also includes a well-attended tech summit known as Interactive, which attracts high-profile Silicon Valley figures, many of whom have been outspoken about immigration issues.

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