Visa agency head outlines which Czech musicians play in the US, where they play – and who they play to

Už jsme doma, photo:

The New York-based company Tamizdat brings music from central and eastern Europe to an American audience. They also act as an agency helping musicians get work visas to perform in the US, and handle the applications of virtually every Czech musician who plays in America. For that reason, Tamizdat owner Matthew Covey has an extensive knowledge of Czech artists and the US – which groups visit the States, where they play, and who they play to.

Matthew Covey
How does the visa process work?

“First of all we’re usually contacted by the artist’s manager or the artist themselves, or sometimes the promoter who’s putting on the show in the US. They tell us we’ve got this artist, they’re putting on a show in two or three months.

“Then we lead them through the process. The process basically amounts to us putting together sort of a dossier on the artist, including letters from important people saying the artist is who the artist says they are, press clippings, translations of those clippings if they’re not in English, attesting to their critical acclaim.

“All of these…pieces go together into an application which attempts to prove that the artist has attained a certain degree of international renown, or if not that at least local renown.

“That application goes to Homeland Security here in the US, they review it – if they’re satisfied that the artist is in fact an artist they approve it. They send us an approval, we send that approval to the artist and the artist takes that to the US Embassy in Prague, where the US Embassy staff then reviews their passport, to make sure they’re not criminals as well as being musicians. If that’s established, then they usually issue a visa. That process takes 24 to 48 hours.”

Does it ever happen that artists are rejected? And is it harder now, since 9/11 basically, to get a visa?

“Very rarely are artists rejected, at least in our experience. Rejections happen a lot but we don’t work with artists who tend to get rejected, and we certainly don’t file an application that we think is not going to get approved.

“In regards to the question of 9/11, in some ways it’s gotten harder, because the criteria are more strictly applied. In some ways it’s gotten easier, because what is expected of the people who are filing the petitions and what’s expected of the artist is much more clearly outlined. There’s not nearly as much guess work as there was before 9/11.

“The other aspect to this is that there’s getting Homeland Security in the US to approve the petition, and that in a way has become harder but in a way has become more regular.

“On the other end, there’s getting the embassy to actually issue the visas. How each embassy around the world works varies greatly. Czechs are very lucky, because by and large the US Embassy in Prague has really proven to be very helpful, with Czech artists.

“They really tend to go out of their way to make it work, wherever it’s possible. I’m sure people have complaints about how it’s worked in the past, but by and large compared with other embassies they’ve been remarkably helpful.”

Plastic People of the Universe
Around how many Czech artists come here to the US every year?

“In terms of bands and solo musicians we probably handle applications for around 12 groups a year, I would guess.”

Can you give us some names of artists who have played here?

“There’s a number of groups that come with a fair amount of regularity. Bands like the Plastic People – I believe they come every year. Už jsme doma used to come every year, then they took a bit of a break but they’ve just completed a very successful tour here.

“Sunshine used to come with serious regularity. They didn’t for a while but I hear a rumour that they may be coming again. Lenka Dusilová has been in and out quite a bit in the last couple of years, as has Chinaski, they’ve been here a fair amount.”

What about the old guard, your Karel Gotts and Helena Vondráčkovas?

“They tend to come over for a specific event only, and they don’t tend to come very often. I think the last time either of them were here they were performing together at Carnegie Hall. I think that was a birthday celebration for Helena Vondráčkova. But they don’t tour – they come over here when there’s one specific reason to do so.”

So would most Czech artists go on longer tours or play a select few dates?

“I think artists who are coming to try to further their career in the US, especially among non-Czech audiences in the US, tend to come on tours, which is why you get Už jsme doma or Sunshine doing extensive touring, when they’re trying to promote an album.

“Other artists who are mostly playing to Czech audiences are just coming for a one-off, usually.”

What about the places where they play – are their particular regions or cities that Czech bands tend to go to?

“Again, that divides between those who are playing for Czech audiences and those who are playing for non-Czech audiences, or Czech expatriate audiences versus non-Czech expatriate audiences.

“I think the bands who play to Czech audiences are going to be playing New York, they’re going to be playing Chicago, possibly Toronto. There are some shows in Texas, largely to Czech expatriate audiences or people of Czech descent who are interested in seeing bands from the home country.

“Bands like Už jsme doma or Sunshine are playing to people who are interested in indie rock – they don’t care where it’s from. And those markets are generally the coasts.”

Which Czech bands in recent years have made a relatively big impact here, or been successful?

“That’s a tough question, because you have to ask, what do you mean by success? I think Iva Bittová has probably had the most demonstrable success. She was signed to BMG in the Czech Republic, her album was released by Nonesuch, she’s been involved in a lot of pretty high level productions and performances here. So I think in terms of how does your resume look, her success is the most demonstrable.

“The Plastic People of the Universe have had an enormous amount of press attention, partly because of their story and partly because of their continuing to be a viable group, they still perform well and they’re still making great music, so that makes the story more interesting. Whenever they’re over here they tend to attract the kind of media attention that no other Czech artists have been able to do.

“In terms of integrating into the international and US music scene, I think Už jsme doma and Sunshine have probably been the most successful, in terms of coming here and being a band and making a go of it as a band.”