Q+A: Matt Covey, Covey Law & Tamizdat

Tucked away in 20 Jay is a law firm going out of their way to help international artists navigate the complicated immigration process. What started as a way to help their friends has turned into a full service law firm. We sat down with Matt Covey, one of the co-founders of Tamizdat and Covey Law.

Tell us about Tamizdat and Covey Law! How did they get started?

Tamizdat is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was set up in the 90’s. Originally it was founded by myself with a group of other musicians with the intent of trying to find ways to help the independent music scene, experimental music, avant-garde all of that was going on in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 90’s. We wanted to help that scene develop audiences in the western world and in the US.

We had a lot of different activities we were involved with but one of the things that we discovered early on was that US immigration issues were a significant impediment in getting independent artists into the US. The cost associated with it, especially the legal cost associated with getting a petition approved and getting the visas issued, made it really difficult for anyone who wasn't on a pretty profitable tour to get into the US. One of the projects we undertook was figuring out how to construct a service that could provide assistance to, not the U2’s of the world, but middle to lower income performing arts projects and providing them assistance to get into the US to tour. It wasn't intended to be a big project but it grew and then 9/11 came along and suddenly a ton of Middle European artists who have always flown under the radar realized, 'wow we need visas too.' What was intended as a side project started to become a focal point. Through the 2000’s we kept getting busier and busier and busier. As the problems facing international artists getting into the US became larger and more legally complex, we started being concerned that the ability of a non-profit to be able to advocate on behalf of performing artists was limited compared to what a law firm could do. So around 2007 the board met and we drew straws and I drew the short straw, so I went to law school.

We are still very involved with the arts communities, and not just as attorneys— almost the entire staff are musicians or are coming out of theater.

Matt Covey, Co-Founder of Tamizdat and Covey Law

What we have done since is set up a law firm that basically runs the same way the non-profit did. We have done our best to maintain the same fees but we are running like a law firm. Which means we have a staff of attorneys so that we can do a lot more for clients than we were able to do before. We are still very involved with the arts communities, and not just as attorneys— almost the entire staff are musicians or are coming out of theater. The law firm has grown by leaps and bounds, most of what you see when you walk in here is the law firm.

As the tech industry struggles with the limits on immigration, especially with the new administration, we're finding that the strategies used to help performing artists get to the US also are becoming more applicable to the tech industry. Where it used to be there were only a handful of visas that everyone went for to get your coder or your designer in from, whether its Copenhagen or Tokyo, some of those visas aren't available anymore or are harder to get. The real specialty visas that you use for performing artists are also being used by business in the tech industry to get very specific high level individuals into the us to work. So that is a big chunk of what we’re doing now. It's not just the arts anymore, a bulk of it is related to the arts but it's really spreading out from beyond that we’re now handling immigration issues that are outside the arts in tech and into sports.

That has left Tamizdat to really become an advocacy organization. We run a hotline for performing artists and the performing arts community to provide free legal assistance to arts organizations that are having issues with immigration law. In a funny way, the motive of the non-profit really is to try to put the law firm out of business. The non-profit is a long way off from solving all the problems, especially in the current political climate it's an uphill battle. While it fights that battle, the law firm can still be on hand to provide the the services and do it fairly and as cheap as possible.

How did your time in a band influence you?

The three people that started Tamizdat were the drummer, guitarist, and the bassist; the band was called Skulpey. We were based originally in Slovakia after the wall came down and Czech and Slovakia split, we were really involved with that. After 50 year of communism there was this amazing eruption of creativity in Central Europe and and Eastern Europe. This was the 90’s which was a very DIY time in American music and American music kids were starting labels and fan zines. There was a lot of sense of screw the majors, we can do this ourselves and we can start our own distribution. We got really involved with the efforts to empower young people in the arts to work in both business and music. Being in a band touring, playing with a lot of other artists, and working with labels really led us to— after the band relocated to Ireland and then on the the States— to think how do we continue to work with these scenes that we’ve been really involved in but artistically grew out of. How can we work with them to help develop these from an international scope. After doing it informally for a couple of years we thought it would make a lot more sense if we set up a non-profit we could get grants, we could have a real structure and have some longevity. Originally we were working as a booking agent, record distribution, doing some publishing, and setting up stages at festivals; after time we realized there were a lot of people that could do what we were trying to do better than we could. What no one had come up with was a way to address was the problem of getting artists into the US. That has remained complex, opaque, and very expensive. So what started as a way that we could help out our friends became a focus of the non-profit.

We’re always trying to advocate for our clients and help them understand a system which is not very empathetic to the way they think about the world.

Matt Covey, Co-Founder of Tamizdat and Covey Law

What has been your toughest assignment?

The hardest thing, from a 30,00- feet perspective, is figuring out how to articulate to people in the arts community the logic or lack of logic in the government. We’re pitted between artists, which we understand, and the government, which is sort of inexplicable. We’re always trying to advocate for our clients and help them understand a system which is not very empathetic to the way they think about the world. There are a number of artists that are shocked that they need to have a visa. They say 'but I'm just playing music, why does anyone care?' That process of trying to explain the law and help people navigate it without endorsing it is a big challenge.

When you get an artist who is on their first tour in the US... and you go see them play... it's so exciting and inspiring to realize that you helped changed the trajectory of their career and their lives.

Matt Covey, Co-Founder of Tamizdat and Covey Law

While the bulk of our work is is coming from countries that have the biggest music industries. The UK, Ireland, Australia, Germany, France to a certain extent, increasingly Scandinavia. Most of those don't really pose too much of a challenge. There are hoops to jump through, but they aren't really hard. It's the artists from Africa, Southeast Asia, South America, the Middle East, that are more inspiring project. A band comes and says 'my friend and I have a new folk duo from Scotland and we just booked 3 weeks of house shows down the west coast playing in people's living rooms.' A lot of law firms would be like 'yeah no,' but from our point of view that's an important part of the cultural fabric of our country. That yes, they’re not playing Wolf Trap, they're not playing Lincoln Center, but they might someday and their careers need this kind of thing to get to the point where they are playing Wolf Trap. We really really work hard to try to figure out how to advocate on behalf of those artists to figure out if there is a way to to get them here within the law. It's going to be harder— you have the U2s of the world, it's not hard to get them the visa, they will get a visa. Whereas with something like this it's kinda like pulling teeth figuring out how do I present this in a way that is legitimate and yet is still compelling enough where someone is going to agree to get them a visa. That is another part that is challenging but exciting because when you get an artist who is on their first tour in the US and you get them in and you go see them play, and wow, it's so exciting and inspiring to realize that you helped changed the trajectory of their career and their lives.

What brought you to DUMBO?

We were in the Lower East Side for a very long time. We moved to DUMBO five years ago. We chose DUMBO because of the rent and spaces— there were really goods spaces that we were able to find. We were looking for a loft space. Also, locationally for staff coming from other parts of Brooklyn it's really easy to get here. I also think we found that being a law firm, the assumption internationally is that you’ll be in Manhattan. Law firms that exist in Brooklyn tend to be focused on that borough; there are a lot of law firms in Brooklyn, but they seem to have a lot of walk in traffic. The clients that come to see us are international. The idea of going to Brooklyn used to seem daunting, but now the idea of going to DUMBO doesn't seem any different than going to lower Manhattan. Especially as we work with more individuals in the tech industry, there's nothing weird about going to DUMBO.

What's your favorite place in DUMBO?

The perch seat at Superfine. We love Superfine and we love that one table, it's like a crow's nest.

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