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Oh, the places you'll go (with an O-1 visa): What it takes to play in the USA

A dive into the challenges international EDM artists face when trying to expand their music careers into the United States.

Challenges faced by international EDM artists pursuing  an O-1 Visa

Left: Photo by @ffcmedia_


Electronic dance music has taken over the globe. The scene has grown into a universal industry worth more than $8 billion USD and is expected to continue its meteoric rise into 2030.


As a fan of electronic music, it's become so easy for us to catch some of our favorite artists at festivals and local venues — But for the artists, it's so much more than just showing up with their USBs to play a set.


For international artists especially, getting to that point can be a nightmare in itself. It's not as simple as just hopping on a plane and flying to the States for a gig.


We've taken a deep-dive into the requirements and challenges that international EDM artists must endure in order to perform in the United States, and some of the ways you can show support once your favorite artists are granted that coveted approval.

 

Extraordinary abilities and extra cash: The costly realities of the O-1 visa


Entry into the United States as a resident of another country typically requires some sort of visa. There are a handful of different types of visas depending on the reason of entry. For artists with the intent of performing in America, there are the P-2 and O-1 visas.


The P-2 is for more short-term plans as it only last for up to one year. It can be obtained as an individual or as part of a group and you must be entering the U.S. through a government-recognized reciprocal exchange program. While this option can be ideal for artists who don't need to travel far and are coming to play specific events, the most sought after visa is the golden O-1.


The O-1 is one of the most difficult visas to obtain, as it's for people with "extraordinary ability in the arts, science, education, business or athletics" that is nationally or internationally recognized. To qualify, the performer needs to be represented by a lawyer in the U.S. who can file for the O-1 on their behalf.


Venice, Italy-based producer msft, who is currently working towards applying for an O-1, said the process can be uncertain and costly.

"The cost of the application and lawyer fee is expensive, around $3,000-$12,000 [USD] depending on a variety of factors. This is nonrefundable, meaning if your application doesn't get approved, you will lose this money," msft explained. "This represents a huge concern, especially since there's no 'certain' way to get approved."

Not only is the low end of that price tag unmanageable for some foreign artists, but the cost combined with the uncertainty adds stress that can take a toll mentally.


Photo via @msftgram

 

Build your case and check it twice: Musical requirements, delays and painful realities


A key part in optimizing an application's chance of approval, aside from getting a strong lawyer, is compiling the correct documents and assets for the lawyer to make their case. These include:

  • Letters of recommendation

  • Published articles

  • Sync placements

  • Relevant awards

  • Other notable proof of the artist's significance

Australian-born artist Sippy, who received her O-1 visa in 2021, explained some of the other requirements she had to provide. These included streaming numbers, a touring schedule for the entire duration of the visa, schedules showing she is releasing on significant U.S labels and an agent willing to sign off on the visa.


Her journey to finally getting a hold of the visa was long, difficult and expensive.

"It took me quite a few years to get to a point where I was big enough to apply for the O-1," Sippy shared. "Building a case that my lawyer was confident in submitting took a very long time. We didn't want to apply for the visa, not get it, and then lose all the money and have to cancel shows we had planned in the States."
SIPPY is an Australian artist

Sippy at Moonrise 2023. Photo by @gnarlymedia_


Once the visa is applied for, artists may also apply for an expedited process. This takes about six weeks total, and is more expensive. If the expedited process is not applied for, it can take months to get the potential visa.

"We started the application process about six months before I wanted to be in the U.S. We had a tour run carved out in the States, but when the time came to apply, my manager said my case just wasn't ready yet," Sippy said. "It took us another six months to finally get to the point where we felt my case was strong enough to go for it."

PhaseOne also discussed some of the challenges he encountered when obtaining his U.S. visa in our most recent podcast interview.



With that being said, you can imagine the stress of worrying if you have enough elements to sustain your application.


For many artists, playing shows in the U.S. is a huge leap in their career that can lead to them working with larger agencies and labels. It's a double-edged sword: Without an agent, it's hard to get a visa to play a U.S. show; But without playing U.S. shows, it's hard to get a U.S. agent.


The chart below shows total, global O-1 visa approvals and refusals over the past decade. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, the approval percentage has increased, but the total number of visas being sought after has decreased. This may be due to factors including cost and lack of access to lawyers and agents.


chart showing US o-1 visa applications

Chart via visagrader.com


You can also imagine the heartbreak when an exciting U.S. offer comes through, but an artist can't accept it because of visa complications.


Dr. Ushuu, based in France, and his team told us when they realized it was time to start the application process.

"The moment it really clicked was when we received a booking request for Lost Lands in 2022, and we couldn't accept it due to not having a visa," he shared. "It was really painful to see that opportunity fade because of a document, so from that point on, the team's main focus was that visa."

Dr. Ushuu is a French artist who was approved for an O-1 Visa

Dr. Ushuu at his U.S. debut show in Los Angeles (06/02/23). Photo via @danyushuu

 

Flip side of the coin: Requirements for American artists to play abroad


Of course, artists based in the United States face challenges as well.


To succeed at making a name for yourself in this industry, dedication, passion and constant hard work are required, regardless of where you live. However, many U.S.-based artists are also aware of the hardships international musicians encounter.


Worldwide drum n bass superstar, REAPER, has played dozens of shows abroad. He said that although everyone on his crew also requires a visa when touring with him, it's a seamless and straightforward process.

"In my experience, as a U.S. citizen, obtaining short-term, working visas in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and most of Asia has been fairly easy," REAPER said. "My manager typically sends a copy of my passport to my agent or promoter, and they facilitate my work visa or short-term work exemption."

The process of preparing for an international tour is less complicated if you're a U.S. citizen. The paperwork and documentation required to get a visa decreases ten fold, and the odds of getting denied a visa are much lower.



Reaper at Rampage Open Air 2023 (Belgium).


"In the event that I am bringing a crew with me, they will often require their own visa," REAPER said. "When I toured Australia and New Zealand with my manager, he had to use an app where he put in his passport information among a bunch of other common info that you'd share if you were going through customs."

With a U.S. passport, sometimes entry into another country is really as simple as using an app on your phone.

 

What happens when you finally get to America?


One of the most daunting realities of getting a visa and touring in the States is the sheer cost. On top of the fees poured into obtaining the visa, it can be expensive to travel and live in the U.S. while touring.


Artists who come to the States with an O-1 are not able to work any other jobs in the U.S. during their stay.


This means all of their expenses must be covered by their income from music or by their savings. For this reason, it's imperative that artists who take this next step save up a comfortable amount of funds prior to coming to the States.


Photo by @tessapaisan


Despite the time, money, and sanity that visas cost, for most artists, it has proven to be completely worth it. Being a touring musician in the U.S. allows them to break through a ceiling they may have otherwise failed to reach by staying in their home country.

 

So, how can you help support your favorite artists from around the world?


Keep in mind how much money these artists are spending just to be in the States: If you or your team is able to, consider paying higher rates to international artists or covering small expenses like meals, lodging, or transportation. It can go a long way.


As a fan, buying tickets to see your favorite artist shows promoters and agents that there's a demand for them in America. Buying merch, sample packs or anything else an artist is selling will support them as well. Even something as simple as introducing a friend to their music helps.


Last but not least, something everyone and anyone can do to show their love and appreciation for our friends from around the globe is simply telling them how happy you are they're here. Many artists come to the U.S. leaving their home and family behind to pursue their dreams, so affirming and encouraging them means more than some may think.


Dr. Ushuu at Bass Canyon 2023. Photo by @thisismtk


As members of this community, whether you're a fan, artist, manager or anything in between, it's important to recognize the tribulations international artists encounter without writing off the struggles that U.S.-based artists also face.


The goal of this investigation is to shed light on the complexities of international relations within the electronic dance music industry, without undermining the hard work of every musician across the globe.


Understanding the hurdles others in the community face allows us to continue to support each other and help the scene become even stronger.

 

EDM Editor Kelly Jardine, can be found on Instagram and Twitter.



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