SXSW CEO Roland Swenson Talks the Festival’s Deportation Clause Controversy
SXSW CEO Roland Swenson clears the air the controversial immigration clause in artist contracts.This article originally appeared on Pitchfork
With a week to go before this year’s SXSW, CEO and co-founder Roland Swenson is defending the festival against a backlash over immigration language in its artist contracts.
The controversy started on Thursday, when Told Slant’s Felix Walworth publicly called off a planned performance, citing a clause that allows SXSW to “notify the appropriate U.S. immigration authorities” if they “or their representatives have acted in ways that adversely affect the viability of their official SXSW showcase.” After Walworth’s announcement, an open letter condemning the contract provision drew signatures from artists including Downtown Boys, PWR BTTM, Priests, and Sheer Mag.
In response, Swenson issued a statement noting SXSW has spoken out against President Trump’s travel ban and “is working hard to build a coalition of attorneys to assist artists with issues at U.S. ports of entry during the event.” Today, SXSW shared a new statementsaying the festival “opposes discrimination of any kind” and “will be reviewing and amending” the contract clause “for 2018 and beyond.” Swenson spoke with Pitchfork over the phone on Friday afternoon about the criticism, the rationale behind the contract language, and what might change next year.
Dozens of artists have signed an open letter calling on SXSW to remove the immigration language and publicly apologize. What’s your response to those artists?
Roland Swenson: If you take any contract and just pull out a few clauses, it always seems a lot worse than it is when you read it all together in one long thing. The reason we have those clauses is, one, we need the artists to know the conditions of their visa. It’s really serious business. To get their attention we have some very stern wording there.
But at the same time, it’s also so that the Customs and Border Patrol people know that we’re really serious about visa issues. And we’re trying to make sure that the artists that come in follow the rules. One of the reasons we do that is, we’ve had artists who attended in the past and gone and done shows in L.A. and New York and other places. And then the following year, when they tried to get into the country they were turned away, because that stuff was noted when they exited back to their home country.
It’s a really serious piece of what we do to get these acts, who are not famous in America. So we have this way of getting them in that relies on some very important conditions. One of them being that they’re not being paid in cash, and then the other one being that they’re only going to play these shows that they’re officially invited to at SXSW.
The main concern I’m hearing from some in the music community seems to be that SXSW is using artists’ immigration status to discourage them from playing unofficial shows. Is there anything else you would say to address those worries?
We’re just telling them that these are the conditions of your visa and you need to follow them. We take that stuff really seriously and so do the immigration people. We’re looking out for all the bands that come in this way. It really wouldn’t take that many people being detained for violating their visa to where it would ruin it for everybody.