Dan Rafferty, the music director of Shambala Festival tells Access its getting increasingly hard to justify talent coming to the UK.
Every year we invite a wide range of artists from around the world to perform, and the increasingly difficult visa process is hindering our ability to book artists. The issues are multi-faceted.
Firstly, there is the cost. We are often seeking performances from acts that may only have one or two shows in the UK. The costs for visas for a large band are therefore spread over very few shows. This makes the option of coming to the UK to perform increasingly hard to justify especially when compared to a Shengen visa which allows the act to perform throughout Europe, therefore spreading the cost further across many engagements.
Secondly, the application is a bureaucratic nightmare that takes a very long time to process and also includes the applicants having to hand over their passports for weeks. These are touring musicians that require shows in multiple territories to make a living. When their passport is held like this, it obviously curtails their touring possibilities and also hinders their application for other visas for which a submission of a passport is also required – though mostly not held for a period of time.
Thirdly, the system is an impenetrable, Kafka-esque process in which there is no one at all to speak to regarding how the process is going, when they may expect their passports with, hopefully, their visas returned and also, if there are any issues, someone to speak to to resolve them.
Overall, the visa process is creating a very strong impression that the UK is closed to touring artists. Music from around the world is cultural crucial in this day and age when division and nationalism is on the, seemingly inexorable, rise. We desperately need, more than ever, to be exposed to the rich culture from around the world to maintain and nourish the tolerant and accepting society that the UK has been famous for and is in very serious danger of losing.
Many artists, managers and agents are telling me that it is simply not worth the stress, hassle and, most importantly, humiliation. This makes me very sad and is not the Britain that I know and love.
Lastly, ever since the visa process has been privatised, there’s an increasing suspicion that serious profiteering going on. By way of example, last year I had booked a world class act from West Africa.
Three visas were applied for with plenty of time. Finally, after a ridiculously long wait, the passports were returned. Although all three applications were made with exactly the same supporting documentation, two of the visas were rejected on the basis that the supporting documentation was incomplete. One however, was successful making a mockery of the claim that the documentation was incomplete. This was five days before the engagement – flights and hotels were all paid for and finding a replacement would be very difficult.
The options available were threefold: 1, appeal. But this would have taken weeks: 2, find a replacement: or 3, re-apply on a fast track basis at around £1,000.
We and the band were over a barrel and had no choice but to re-apply on a fast track basis. The two visas were eventually granted, with exactly the same supporting documentation, in the very nick of time. It’s very hard indeed to not view this with cynicism.
If I was a touring musician, I would probably not put myself through this process. The only reason many still do is the global respect of the UK’s music industry. This, however, is also on the wane. If we do not change this system and make it more welcoming, Britain risks becoming increasingly culturally barren.