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Bordering on Insanity: A Case Against U.S. Policy on International Musicians

Piers Henwood
3 min read

What surprising thing do more than half of the acts booked at the 2023 Coachella festival have in common?

Unless they comply with burdensome, expensive, and exploitative administrative requirements, they would be barred from entering the United States to perform, and would have 30% of their payment siphoned off at source.

Why? Because 52% of the artists at this year's Coachella hail from countries outside the United States, including 56% of the top-billed performers. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) inexplicably treats foreign musicians like a potential threat to the republic, while the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) treats foreign musicians like a slush fund. And this has been true for decades, regardless of the political party in power.

To be clear, none of this is the fault of Coachella: It's tied to federal U.S. policy around work permits and foreign withholding, even though this brand of outdated protectionism in the arts has no merit. Music is not a zero-sum game, and the economic ecosystem around live music – regardless of whether a performing artist is American or foreign – is massive for regional economies in the United States. Coachella itself grosses over $100 million, and the city of Indio, which hosts the festival annually, typically reports over $200 million in adjacent revenue from bars, restaurants, hotels, and small businesses benefitting from the influx of 125,000 festival-goers each weekend.

Put another way, the largest festival in the U.S. – bringing essential revenue for countless American businesses in the region – is powered in equal part by international performers, who in turn must jump through a series of unfair and sometimes prohibitive hoops to obtain a work permit just to play their instruments in the U.S.

And then, as thanks, they risk being taxed pre-emptively and heavily on gross income, all for contributing handsomely to the domestic economy. It's a double shot of pain that makes the U.S. market increasingly out of reach for a wide spectrum of international artists, and susceptible to retaliatory action from other countries.

It's essential to note that Canada, the U.K., and the European Union do not treat American musicians the same way in return. American performers and their crew have unfettered access to cross the Canadian border without work permits, as is the case with the U.K. and E.U. This asymmetry between the U.S. and its closest cultural allies is stark and indefensible. Music should be free to cross borders, without the overreach of government bureaucracies that peddle non-reciprocal policies.

Adding salt to this wound, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has recently proposed a 250% increase in fees for work permit processing for entertainers. When combined with necessary legal fees (particularly when tied to the “O” class of visas), the typical cost of a work permit for foreign musicians and crew can already land between $5,000-$10,000 depending on the timeline required for processing. A further increase may not be an issue for famous Canadians like Drake or Justin Bieber, but for other classes of artists it's an existential threat to their touring business in the U.S. – especially when combined with the 30% foreign withholding tax on gross income, which can only be avoided by yet another burdensome administrative process via a Central Withholding Agreement (CWA) with the IRS.

As a starting point, it's high time for a change in U.S. regulatory policy regarding work permits for foreign musicians. The IRS may likely be immovable on foreign withholding, but surely the DHS can begin to weigh a move towards border reciprocity.

Were it not for the extensive and often exhausting administrative work done behind the scenes by the artist teams supporting international performers (managers, business managers, agents, and lawyers), the Coachella 2023 lineup would look vastly different. Indeed, the visual exercise of decapitating this year's line-up by removing foreign performers paints a very clear picture of how unfairly these artists are treated by the federal government given the significant economic and cultural value they bring to the U.S. market.

Is the lineup below a Coachella you'd pay $600 to see?

The 2023 Coachella Line-Up With International Artists Removed

This essay originally appeared in Variety.