Musicians press for ivory exemption

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The music industry is concerned about a “crippling” new regulation from the Obama administration that it says could end the careers of musicians and reduce the quality of performances around the world. 

In an effort to crack down on illegal animal trafficking, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) issued an order earlier this year that bans the trade of materials containing African elephant ivory.

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Musicians say the order could keep them from traveling overseas, because they often perform with expensive antique instruments that contain ivory.

Country star Vince Gill, who owns an extensive collection of antique guitars, is among the musicians who have expressed fears about traveling overseas for fears that their instruments will be confiscated in customs.

The policy is particularly worrisome for orchestras, because many older stringed instruments such as violins and cellos contain small amounts of ivory, as do the bows used to play them.

“There have been some musicians that have decided not to travel because the risk is too high, there’s too much uncertainty about what could happen to their instruments,” said Heather Noonan, vice president for advocacy at the League of American Orchestras.

The new regulations include an across-the-board ban on imports of any items containing African elephant ivory and further restrict commercial exports, except in certain circumstances. But the push includes a renewed focus on previous regulations enacted, though seldom enforced, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Under those rules, musicians can be barred from coming into the United States with instruments containing even a tiny amount of ivory — even if they are simply returning to the country, according to the League. Musicians can apply through the FWS for a CITES permit, though they still must show the instrument was legally acquired before February 1976 and has not been sold for profit since then.

Advocates say the ivory policy was well-intentioned, but should not have applied to antique instruments that are no longer contributing to the poaching of elephants.

“Although ivory is no longer used in the manufacture of new musical instruments, many older musical instruments, such as guitars and bows, feature very small amounts of ivory and are still in use by artists today,” wrote Todd Dupler, director of government relations at The Recording Academy, which issues the Grammy Awards, in a recent blog post.

“These instruments, some of which are historically significant antiques, were legally crafted and legally acquired, but under the new rules artists could still be prohibited from traveling internationally with them,” he added.

The policy would also prevent musicians from selling antiques with ivory, meaning many of the best-sounding instruments could eventually come out of circulation, advocates say.

“If instruments cannot be traded, music as we know it will not survive and musical collections, which provide the basis for learning, will be frozen in place,” the National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) wrote.

The FWS says it never intended to single out musicians with the rule, which is intended to discourage poachers from killing African elephants for their tusks. The agency estimates that poachers kill 30,000 elephants each year.

The Recording Academy, the League of American Orchestras, and NAMM say they’ve been talking with Fish and Wildlife Service officials as well as members of Congress about an exemption to the policy.

“We’re looking for ways to accommodate the movement of instruments that don’t pose a threat to African elephants,” said Craig Hoover, chief of the FWS Wildlife Trade and Conservation Branch.

Hoover said he has spoken with orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony and Boston Symphony Orchestra that are trying to find a way around the policy.

“If you leave the country, we want to make sure you can come back with your instrument,” Hoover said.

Musicians’ groups say the current rule is causing musicians to cancel performances because it makes it nearly “impossible” to travel internationally.

“The travel ban puts the livelihood and international reputation of musicians at risk,” NAMM wrote. “International artists perform for U.S. audiences, U.S. musicians tour internationally to perform across the globe.”

Antique instruments are still widely circulated because “the instrument’s sound becomes better the more you use it for stringed instruments like violins and cellos,” said Daryl Friedman, chief advocacy and industry relations officer at The Recording Academy.

“So older instruments are very valuable,” he said.

Furthermore, many musicians invest their life savings into their instruments, and might not be able to afford another one, NAMM said.

“If musical instruments are confiscated and destroyed, significant financial hardship may ensue,” NAMM wrote. “Such seizures could very well spell the end of employment and possibly lead to their inability to participate in other opportunities within their respective artistic cultural centers, clubs, and educational training organizations.”

Musicians say the current exemptions do not go far enough to protect them from the “unintended consequences” of the ivory restrictions, but they are hopeful the Wildlife agency will reconsider. 

The FWS is planning to come out with a new ivory rule this summer to clarify the director’s order. Officials in the music industry hope the revamped rule will contain a broader exemption for antique instruments.