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Musicians balk at SXSW contract that warns visiting artists about deportation

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Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

A clause in the SXSW artist contract appears to threaten international artists by giving festival staff the right to contact immigration authorities. In a series of tweets sent this afternoon, Told Slant’s Felix Walworth announced they were canceling the band’s showcase because of issues with the festival’s contract. Walworth shared a screenshot of what is apparently the contract that says international musicians on a visa who “adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase” could be deported if they play unauthorized shows.

“After looking through this contract sent to me by sxsw [sic] I have decided to cancel Told Slant's performance at the festival,” Walworth wrote. “I'm not interested in aligning myself with an institution that interacts with immigration authorities as a means of controlling where art is shared and performed, and who makes money off of it.”

In an interview with Austin 360, SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson responded to Walworth’s tweets, saying that they gave “a much worse impression than what is real” and noted that the clause has actually been in festival contracts for years. SXSW has never alerted immigration authorities in the past, he said, and doesn’t plan to unless an artist does something “horrific.” He said that the clause specifically mentions unofficial showcases because most artists aren’t traveling on a work visa, and don’t get paid to play.

Joey DeFrancesco of the band Downtown Boys, which has played SXSW in the past, also pointed out on Twitter that a similar clause has appeared in SXSW’s contracts for years, but this is the first time it seems to have gotten a widespread reaction. Criticism over the contract comes during a period of heightened fear for immigrant communities in the US. Trump’s recent immigration ban, coupled with increased activity by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could potentially be a catalyst for unfounded threats toward immigrants.

“In the post-Trump era, it looks different than how it was intended, and how it was received in the past,” Swenson told Austin 360. “But we’ve come out strongly against the travel ban, and we’ve really been going the extra mile to make sure these bands don’t get screwed over when they enter the country.”

In a statement to The Verge, Swenson called the backlash a “misunderstanding of our policies”:

We understand that given the current political climate surrounding immigration, the language that was published seems strong... We hope never to be put in the position to act on this. Indeed, we spend a great deal of time communicating with international artists concerning numerous issues, including how to avoid issues at U.S. ports of entry.

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.

Still, SXSW’s aggressive wording in its contracts feels unusual, especially for a festival that benefits from its many international showcases.

Downtown Boys’ Victoria Ruiz started an online petition today asking SXSW to remove this clause from the contracts. “So many of the artists playing the festival are addressing and confronting the very power structures that SXSW is perpetuating through their threats,” Ruiz told The Verge in an email. “They are a festival, not law enforcement.”

On Twitter, Walworth is encouraging other artists to ditch the festival as well. In an email to The Verge, Walworth confirmed this was going to be the band’s first year playing at SXSW.

Update February 2nd, 6:30PM ET: Updated to add comment from Roland Swenson / SXSW.