On March 8, Italian post-punk group Soviet Soviet were turned away from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and sent back to their native country by customs and border patrol officers. They had flown to the US to play the South by Southwest festival and some other North American dates, including three performances in Seattle at Kremwerk, KEXP, and Lo-Fi on March 8 and 9. As Erik Lacitis reported in the Seattle Times, Soviet Soviet were under the impression they could play shows in America as long as they didn't receive compensation, as they were traveling under the Visa Waiver Program, also known as ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization). This wasn't good enough for border agents. The band's members were taken away in cuffs to an office and interrogated for nearly four hours.
On Soviet Soviet's Facebook page, they described the incident in detail. "We accepted this situation even if we tried to no end to explain the situation and that we were not receiving any form of payment, but there was simply no way of convincing the officials we spoke to. From that moment onwards, we became three illegal immigrants and were treated like criminals." This fiasco did have one upside: It increased awareness of Soviet Soviet's music and significantly increased their number of Facebook followers.
Some Seattle music promoters are unnerved by this action; they've experienced their own share of cancellations by international artists for seemingly dubious or petty reasons. These rejections of foreign musicians are nothing new, says the Funhouse's Brian Foss. "I started noticing big issues with the borders for touring bands starting soon after 9/11. So while I personally have not noticed any particular uptick in low-budget bands being hassled trying to enter the US, it's only because it's been an ongoing problem for years."
Melissa Darby, who books shows for the hiphop-oriented promotional company ReignCity and Paul Allen's Upstream Music Festival & Summit, says this is an important topic: "So far we've lucked out for Upstream and if anything we've been working with Canada on getting expedited visas. For ReignCity, we just confirmed Skepta at Neumos on April 19, and so far so good. Fingers crossed this doesn't get cancelled again." Darby is referring to a Skepta show that was cancelled last year.
Michael Gill of Central Saloon notes, "The Central hasn't had anything close to the extent of the horrible shit that happened to Soviet Soviet. However, we've had one Japanese band [Pink-HOUSE] that was coming in to record with Jack Endino get turned around at Sea-Tac. I've also lost some confirmed shows from bands coming from India [FuzzCulture] due to having their visas pulled. I haven't gotten details on the why for either, though." He adds that the Central has booked several South American acts without a problem.
On the other hand, Leigh Bezezekoff of Tractor Tavern notes that the Ballard venue has successfully booked several acts this year from Canada, the UK, Australia, Norway, and the Netherlands. She says a March 26 show by Berlin-based Danish singer/songwriter Agnes Obel has presented no difficulties so far.
There is seemingly no consistent pattern to international artists getting turned away at American airports. The Trump administration's xenophobic views and disdain for culture in general give one little hope that this situation will improve.