We tend to think of Europe as the Mecca of electronic dance music, a sonic utopia where underground scenes have the systemic backing to flourish, with major cities like London at the heart of the network. Before I made the trip from Australia to Europe, I’d grown infatuated with Eurocentric dance music, including the exciting sounds coming out of Eastern Europe: the twisted electronics of Buttechno, the hypnotizing soundscapes of 33.10.3402. But once here, I soon discovered that if you hail from certain parts of Eastern Europe, the chances are you'll have a much lower level of creative access.
Barriers and borders remain, played out in bureaucratic, often invisible ways, keeping some of the most exciting talent from Eastern Europe from making it to the West. One of the clearest examples of this is the visa problem that afflicts so many New East artists arriving in the UK. Visas are a necessary aspect of travel and work for those coming to the UK, but artists from further afield face extreme difficulty obtaining such permits.
Visa-related issues are often ignored, but the ramifications for our music community are serious. Unlike DJs hailing from longstanding clubbing capitals like Berlin or London, artists from New East cities with nascent scenes need to tour in order to connect with audiences and industry professionals. In countries like Serbia, Ukraine, and Russia, there is no government support for budding DJs. Johana Bogićević, half of Belgrade DJ duo Banda Panda and the organiser of the new, female-led night F-Society, says that those who want to play professionally simply aspire to leave the country: “There are not enough clubs or bookings here, it’s hard to get equipment, there are no vinyl stores, and sometimes you get paid miserably. You need to go international.” Stringent or outright discriminatory visa procedures put the prospect of career growth both physically and politically out of reach.
Young people are wasting time and money they don’t have on paper trails, and being left feeling humiliated
To an outsider, the procedure to secure a working visa in the UK might seem straightforward. However, the recent travails of DJs like Serbia’s Tijana T — who described in exhaustive detail her experiences attempting to obtain a UK visa on her Facebook page — demonstrate just how labour intensive and emotionally exhausting this process is. She said in a recent interview that every time she applied for a visa, she would have her applications rejected due to “reasonable doubt” that she will “stay in the UK and work illegally.”
London-based Ukrainian artist Masha Batsea knows this sort of distress well. Getting a visa for the UK is like “a full-time job,” she tells me. “Instead of focusing on your career, you focus on the visa stuff because it takes a lot of energy and money.” Young people are wasting time and money they don’t have on paper trails, and are being left feeling humiliated to the point of giving up. At what point do nominal security measures become excessive?
Of course, this bureaucratic rigmarole is nothing new for citizens of countries deemed too poor, too dangerous, or simply unimportant. DJs are not a special case. But there are hidden complexities to the visa process for women from Eastern Europe, who are plagued by negative and insidious stereotypes regarding their motivations — namely, that they’re looking for a husband in order to secure residency.
Russian musician Kedr Livanskiy addressed this presumption in an i-D documentary from last year. She details how she was invited to play at a festival in the UK along with a male Russian friend and, even though they filled in their visa applications identically, he was granted a visa whilst hers was denied, in her words, because “the world thinks that Russian women dream about leaving Russia to go abroad and find a man.” This sort of additional scrutiny faced by female artists is rarely acknowledged. Having experienced it countless times in UK workplaces and airports, Batsea admits that she is now sometimes hesitant to disclose where she’s from and she points out that the stereotype misrepresents easterners’ relationship to home and travel.
Whether as a side-effect of geographic distance or not, powerful undergrounds have flourished in cities across the New East. Labels like Russia’s Gost Zvuk and nightclubs like Drugstore in Belgrade and Kisloty in St Petersburg are truly dynamic institutions that stand in contrast with the established industry in other parts of Europe. In Batsea’s words, “rather than having all the opportunities in the world, you’re producing something through blood, sweat and limitations... that’s what makes music from Russia and Ukraine so special.” Arrtists also find creative ways to support each other. F-Society, Johana Bogićević’s new, weekly night at Belgrade’s 20/44, is a space exclusively for female DJs to play, connect with, and champion one another. These artists, collectives, and events have built cult followings in their home territories and created room, limited as it might be, for their communities to thrive.
But with no easy way around visa regulations, and the added uncertainty of Brexit, it’s likely that we’ll only see more of these issues. The exclusion of New East performers may not be the deliberate result of a xenophobic or sexist government policy, but we should ask why the systems in place produce the results they do. We have to examine why artists, particularly female ones, with an established reputation in their home countries are still being refused entry because they are seen as “suspicious”. The West will have to realise that these artists are content living in their own countries and merely want the opportunity to connect with the wider music community. A failure to understand this will only contribute to a bleak future of stilted communication and limited perspectives.
In the meantime, it’s vital music fans stay informed and engaged. A couple of months ago, Kedr Livanskiy — now with an international following both online and offline — was once again denied entry to the UK to perform live. She had to reschedule and then cancel the show, finding herself at the sharp end of disappointed responses. We need to make known the difficulties these artists face, and we need to make noise about it. We need to keep an eye on our policy makers. Most importantly, we need to support these artists, collectives, and movements, if only in the digital sphere, and keep buying tickets to their shows — even when we’re told, time and again, that the performance we were hoping for has been cancelled “due to visa issues.”