Note: This report has been significantly updated since its original online publication on March 21.
The news that the U.S. is placing restrictions on what airline passengers can carry in the cabin on direct flights from eight majority-Muslim nations is creating ripples of concern throughout the arts community.
According to the rules recently issued by President Trump's administration, all passengers must check most electronic devices — including laptops, cameras and tablets — into their checked baggage. Travelers will still be allowed to carry their mobile phones in their hand luggage.
Just as international businesspeople and tourists may be concerned about possible thefts, data breaches, lithium battery hazards and other potential forms of damage, musicians are beginning to grapple with the possible effects that these restrictions may have on their live performances. Many artists bring along work gear in the cabin when they tour — and elements of their shows (including electronic music and visual projections) might well be stored on their laptops, tablets and other devices that now will be relegated to the cargo hold, if the artists travel on the affected carriers.
Some prominent American musicians have tour dates in several cities within these eight countries in the coming weeks, including pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who is performing at NYU Abu Dhabi's Arts Center with his trio Tirtha and the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE); the group Pink Martini, who has dates at the Tunisian seaside resort of Gammarth (April 8), Casablanca (April 9 at the Jazzablanca festival) and Istanbul (April 15 at the Volkswagen Arena); All Things Considered host Ari Shapiro will be performing with Pink Martini at their Tunisian and Moroccan dates. Meanwhile, hip-hop artists Earl Sweatshirt and Danny Brown, as well as singer Julianna Barwick, who are all slated to perform in Dubai on April 14 as part of the RBMA Weekender Dubai festival.
Pink Martini had already made arrangements to route through Europe for this tour, so the electronics ban won't impact them directly right now. However, the group's managing director, William Tennant, says that, while the dates in Tunisia and Morocco mark the band's first North African appearances, they've long had a foothold in the Middle East — and the group takes a great deal of pride in the cultural connections they've forged there. "There's so much amazing music that comes from that region," Tennant says. "We've been performing songs in Arabic and Turkish and Farsi and a lot of the languages of the Middle East for so many years."
Pink Martini has connected hugely with local audiences, Tennant adds, and the Middle East has become an important part of their touring circuit. "We've played in Lebanon and even Syria — though obviously not recently — and Turkey for over a decade," he says, "and all of our records have gone gold in Turkey."
Vijay Iyer's concerts with ICE and Tirtha include quite a bit of the exact kinds of equipment that the new regulations target. The performances are of Radhe Radhe: Rites of Holi, a film and live-music project which Iyer created with the late filmmaker Prashant Bhargava.
"We need to keep this equipment safe, just like we need to keep our violins and cellos safe. It's for us an instrument like any other instrument," says Ross Karre, a percussionist and co-artistic director of ICE.
The tech they need is exactly the kind of equipment that is being banned from carry-ons, Karre observes. He and his bandmates had no problem getting the equipment to Abu Dhabi — but bringing it back, they have to check it all.
"The piece uses four laptops — two to play the video content, and two to run the audio and the click track," Karre explains. "And then on top of that, basically everyone in the orchestra reads their music from an iPad Pro, which is a larger iPad that allows you to see music and change the pages with a foot pedal."
The Radhe Radhe musicians were booked by Bill Bragin, the executive artistic director of the Arts Center at NYU Abu Dhabi. He says that smaller electronics are crucial — and not just for music. Nowadays, many artists are managing their own careers.
"Their office is often the airport lounge, you know?" Bragin points out. "In the two hours that they have to wait before they board the plane, that's when they do their major correspondence, that might be when they write grants, it might be when they are writing new material, or editing music. It's not a leisure-time interruption."
And as Bragin adds, many musicians now release their own recordings, too — and what they capture at live shows can become the basis of an album. "And so being able to capture all of their performances is actually a really significant part of what happens after the shows," he says. If that archival material is stolen, lost or otherwise compromised, the impact would resonate long after that concert date.
The money involved in rerouting travel through Europe or other hubs is daunting, Bragin says. "In many cases, flights have been purchased long, long ago, and so anybody who's got a tour that's kind of in the works, and that has been planned, they don't have the ability necessarily — nor can they afford to — change their route," he notes. "Anything that's already in motion I think is particularly at risk."
The regulations are directed towards flights coming into the U.S. from eight majority-Muslim countries who are all traditionally allies of the U.S.: Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. According to our colleague Greg Myre who reported on this story for Morning Edition, the new rules affect passengers on about 50 incoming flights per day, on travelers flying with non-U.S. carriers. As Myre also notes, the eight affected countries include "every major travel hub in the region except Israel's main airport just outside Tel Aviv."
Some of the airports on the list also serve as major transportation hubs to other international destinations, including Dubai (which is now the busiest airport in the world, beating out the likes of London's Heathrow and Hong Kong); Istanbul, an important connection point between Europe and Asia; and Casablanca, a popular hub for travelers coming to and leaving from elsewhere in Africa.
Rebooking flights through Europe also potentially carries additional, hidden costs. Especially for artists who need to live close to the bone, uninterrupted long-haul flights from the Middle East serve another purpose, according to Bragin. "They are living on the road and going from gig to gig," he notes. "In many cases, they don't even take a hotel room, and then that long plane ride becomes their hotel room for the night."
Three of the affected airlines — Emirates, Etihad, and Turkish Airlines — have already announced that they will allow their passengers to pack and gate-check their devices right before boarding. Still, artists are sorting through their options. One alternative to carrying expensive electronic gear on planes is uploading musical information to a secure cloud, and then downloading it when musicians get to the gig. But Ross Karre says that's risky too.
"Maybe you could bring it over on an external hard drive that would be allowed in the cabin," Karre muses. "But even that would rely on having exactly the same hardware and software configuration, both on our rehearsal electronics that we use in the United States, and on the performance electronics."
So for now, Karre and the other musicians in his group are traveling with their laptops and tablets, and hoping they come back safe and sound.