High stakes for artists at South by Southwest


    Garth Brooks, right, takes part in a keynote conversation with the Wall Street Journal’s Hannah Karp, center, and Amazon Worldwide Digital Music vice president Steve Boom during the South by Southwest Music Festival on March 17.

AUSTIN, Texas >> What if they gave a music festival and people of certain ethnic backgrounds couldn’t get in? It sounds like the subject of a dystopian novel, but the question hovered over the South by Southwest Music Conference as it wrapped up its 31st year on March 19.

The conference itself has always been a welcoming place, with more than one-quarter of the more than 2,200 performers coming from foreign countries. This year, the festival saw performers from China, Somalia, Peru, Ukraine and dozens more countries on stages across Austin playing in front of tens of thousands of registrants from across the music, tech, film and gaming industries.

As singer-guitarist Olivia Scibelli of the Nashville quartet Idle Bloom said of the conference, it is an oasis of “no misogyny, no homophobia, no transphobia, no Islamophobia — it’s great we can connect with each other in this space.”

But the oasis wasn’t quite as diversely populated as it might have been. A number of foreign bands and artists scheduled to play the conference were denied entry to the United States by customs officials, including Italy’s Soviet Soviet, members of Egyptian-Canadian hardcore band Massive Scar Era and London-based drummer Yussef Dayes. Though each year of the festival has seen bands turned away at the border because of visa issues, the problem is “magnified … because of the current political climate,” the conference said in an email to registrants. In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has imposed stricter…

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