SXSW responds to deportation threat controversy, artists sign open letter

On Thursday the South By Southwest music festival began facing backlash for what many perceived as an effort to enforce its “no conflicting shows” rule on international artists via the threat of deportation. Now the festival has issued an official response, claiming it’s all a big misunderstanding.

In a statement released Thursday night, SXSW CEO and Co-Founder Roland Swenson affirmed his opposition to President Trump’s travel ban and assured everyone the festival “is working hard to build a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at U.S. ports of entry during the event.” He also insists the threat — and yes, it reads as a threat — is one that has never been invoked: “We have never reported international showcasing artists to immigration authorities.” So why put it in there at all?

He goes on to call Felix Walworth of Told Slant’s interpretation of the language “a misunderstanding” and explains that SXSW was only threatening to snitch on artists for their own good:

“We were sorry to learn that one of our invited performers chose to cancel their performance at this year’s SXSW Music Festival due to a misunderstanding of our policies regarding international artists. We understand that given the current political climate surrounding immigration, the language that was published seems strong. Violating U.S. immigration law has always carried potentially severe consequences, and we would be remiss not to warn our participating acts of the likely repercussions.”

Here’s a refresher on the language being discussed:

If SXSW determines, in its sole discretion, that Artist or its representatives have acted in ways that adversely affect the viability of Artist’s official SXSW showcase, the following actions are available to SXSW:

○ Artist will be removed from their official SXSW showcase and, at SXSW’s sole option, replaced.
○ Any hotels booked via SXSW Housing will be canceled.
○ Artist’s credentials will be canceled.
○ SXSW will notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities of the above actions.

While “adversely affecting the viability of a showcase” sure sounds like “adversely affecting ticket sales” to me, Swenson insists the threat would only be carried out “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.” So why not specifically delineate that in the wording?

On the part about the Visa Waiver Program, he said SXSW is simply notifying artists of the risks associated with violating the terms of one’s visa (or participation in the visa waiver program, as the case may be), which seems fair enough:

Moreover, there is language in the Performance Agreement which is included to inform foreign artists that the U.S. immigration authorities have mechanisms to create trouble for artists who ignore U.S. immigration laws. For example, those acts coming to SXSW to perform without a work visa are limited, by U.S. immigration law, to performing their showcase event only. If an artist wishes to perform elsewhere, they will require a work visa.

He also noted that all of the controversial language has been in the contract for years, as if that is an argument in its favor.

This was not enough to satisfy critics. As of Friday morning, a number of prominent left-leaning artists — including Priests, Ted Leo, Downtown Boys, Sheer Mag, Screaming Females, Sad13, Helado Negro, Allison Crutchfield and the Fizz, Hari Kondabolu, Immortal Technique, Ceremony, Girlpool, and Anti-Flag — signed an open letter demanding the festival remove the threat of deportation from its contract and apologize.

Via the open letter:

Austin, TX is a sanctuary city and these actions by SXSW show a disrespect for municipal policy. SXSW is a well respected institution and has a responsibility to show leadership by refusing to collaborate with the government’s campaign of fear and hate toward non-citizens.. This is a growing open letter with concrete demands that SXSW needs to take.

WE the artists who make SXSW possible demand the following:

-SXSW must rescind the portion of their contract that states that if they found out that an artist is playing an unofficial showcase they will “notify the appropriate U.S. Immigration authorities of the above actions,” and “accepting and performing at any non-sanctioned events may result in immediate deportation, revoked passport, and denied entry by US Customs Border Patrol at US points of entry.”

-SXSW must publicly apologize to the community for their attempt to collaborate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. SXSW must affirm that it is a welcoming space for all artists, including immigrants and international performers, and commit to protecting the rights of all performers.

In addition to the out-of-line snitching threat, some of the letter’s signers take issue with the gentrification caused by the festival. Milo Royal, a musician and worker in Austin wrote in the aforementioned open letter:

“SXSW has directly contributed to growing gentrification in our city. SXSW is responsible for the ongoing destruction of families homes and businesses. Locals here who play music and directly contribute to the economy can no longer live here due to stagnant wages and rising rental costs. We are one of the largest growing cities but all of our PoC are getting forced out because this ongoing culture is unsustainable. ICE is targeting hard working people in Austin so this comes as a slap in the face to everyone that lives here when we are already vulnerable and the administration wants to make an example of us because we a sanctuary city.”

Given the number of issues people had with SXSW already, it seems like this is just the last straw for many. Assuming this controversy continues to gather steam, it could spell disaster for a festival whose relevance had already been waning.

[Photo: Getty]