Licenses to Rock

February 17th, 2011 by Alex Halberstadt

Matthew Covey runs Tamizdat, a successful nonprofit that helps foreign musicians navigate the difficult process of securing U.S. work visas.

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In 2008, British singer Amy Winehouse had been nominated for six Grammys, including Song and Record of the Year, and was scheduled to perform on the award telecast when she learned that the U.S. Embassy in London had denied her visa application. By the time she appealed the ruling and managed to have it overturned, the Grammys had gone on without her. Winehouse’s case was hardly unique; in previous years, performers Lilly Allen and M.I.A. had run into visa problems as well. In 2006, Laurent Garnier, one of Europe’s most popular dance-music DJs, canceled his entire American tour due to the difficulties of applying for a U.S. work visa, which he called “unreasonable” and “a violation of my privacy.” He fumed in print, “It has now become almost impossible for an artist to come and perform in the United States.

Some among Garnier’s nonplussed American fans wondered what he was talking about. After all, an American artist setting out to perform in most European countries needs little more than a passport and proof of a booking. For a foreign performer coming to the U.S., however, the process can be far more complicated. According to the Department of Homeland Security, a solo artist hoping to perform in this country must establish “extraordinary ability”; an ensemble must prove “sustained international renown,” and a folk group must demonstrate that it is “culturally unique.” Petitions must include itineraries, press clippings, photos, letters from record labels and agents, and detailed disclosures about the artists’ past legal dealings; typically these documents run more than 50 pages long and are prepared by attorneys who charge thousands of dollars for the service. Mastering the application process tends to be a manageable, albeit time-consuming, task for established performers like Winehouse. But for lesser-known artists, particularly those from developing countries – the ones whose visa troubles don’t make the papers – it can mean the difference between going on tour and staying at home.

This is where Tamizdat comes in. Located behind an unassuming door in downtown Brooklyn, the organization has become a workshop for visa hurdles faced by performers of every kind. Because it started out as, and largely continues to be, a nonprofit, its prices are a fraction of those typically charged by lawyers, placing Tamizdat’s services within the reach of a broad array of performers. Over the past decade, founder Matthew Covey has shepherded folk ensembles from Mali, Polish performance artists, and Dutch techno bands on successful U.S. tours. Of course, not all of his clients come from so far afield; some live an hour’s drive from the border. “Every ambitious Canadian band is trying to get to the United States,” says Chris Slorach, a touring specialist with the Toronto-based rock label Arts & Crafts. “Without a work visa, it’s hard to be taken seriously. Applying can still be a scary process, but Matt makes it a lot easier than it used to be.”

Quietly, Covey has developed a reputation for untangling logistic and legal snafus and maintaining smooth relationships with the government, bookers, and artists; of the several thousand petitions Tamizdat has filed, only three have been denied. And while the fallout from visa difficulties is rarely more serious than a cancelled appearance or two, occasionally much more can be at stake. On a recent afternoon at his office, Covey talked about a celebrated Iranian musician who had traveled to the U.S. after recording sung portions of the Koran. In his absence, an official in Iran declared a fatwa – a religious edict – against him. Covey recalls getting a call from the singer’s distraught manager. “There are three weeks left on his visa,” the manager told him. “But if he returns to his country, he will be killed.” Covey enlisted the help of an immigration attorney, and the singer eventually received political asylum in the U.S.

Gangly and bespectacled, Covey looks and sounds more like a music journalist than an expert in a particularly complex area of immigration law; that’s part of what makes him effective. Covey is himself a rock musician; most of his typically twenty-something staff began their careers in the music industry. “Artists aren’t always the most organized people,” says Covey. “And our job is to channel frustration into action.” Chris Colbourn, a booking agent with Concerted Efforts near Boston who works with Tamizdat on bringing a roster of mostly African performers to the U.S., concurs. “They hold your hand, calm everyone down, and walk you through it.” 

The idea for Tamizdat sprouted in 1992, when Covey and his girlfriend (now wife) Heather Mount traveled to Slovakia prior to embarking on their doctorates. They performed in a band that Covey describes as playing “loud art music that didn’t have much of a following,” and were on the lookout for a local rock scene. They found one at a festival held in an abandoned Soviet-era sanatorium in a town called Trenčianske Teplice, about an hour and a half from Bratislava, a place Covey describes as “the middle of nowhere.” His notions about Eastern European music came from having listened to literary but musically clumsy Russian rock bands, and what he heard that afternoon amazed him. “The music was up-to-date and thoroughly informed about what was going on in the West, but had its own sound,” Covey says. “We decided more-or-less on the spot that listeners in the U.S. needed to hear it.” Communism had recently collapsed and a mood of free expression had taken hold in the region. Covey and Mount began to promote recordings by hundreds of Eastern and Central European bands and to book concert appearances. As a favor, they also assisted local musicians headed to the U.S. with their visa applications. The immigration side business grew even while the couple managed an Amsterdam music club and, later, the Klezmatics, the popular world-jazz ensemble. By the time the Internet and mp3s rendered the music-promotion side of Tamizdat redundant, visa services had taken over much of the organization’s capacity; Covey decided to devote himself to them full-time. 

According to Covey, most problems can be avoided by leaving plenty of lead-time for the application process; the hundreds of performers that Tamizdat assists every year with playing at festivals like South By Southwest rarely encounter problems entering the country. Thanks to Covey’s calm demeanor, even close calls are an exception, but managing the unexpected remains a critical part of the job. Recently, members of a Czech pop ensemble that Tamizdat worked with showed up at the American Consulate in Prague the night before they were due to fly to the U.S. It was after business hours, and they discovered that everyone was upstairs at the staff Halloween party; when the consul stamped their visas, he was still in a gorilla costume. Self-effacing and soft-spoken, Covey makes no grand claims about the value of his work, yet maintains the sense of mission that got him started on an unlikely career at the hot springs in far-flung Slovakia. “Basically,” he says, “what we do is remove some economic and bureaucratic impediments to the free movement of culture.”

Alex Halberstadt is the author of Lonely Avenue: The Unlikely Life and Times of Doc Pomus. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Salon, and other publications.