British Columbia

U.S. ticketing company's box office bust costing grassroots Canadian artists

Seattle-based Brown Paper Tickets is facing complaints and legal action over allegations of not paying artists and event organizers the ticket monies they are owed. Some in the Canadian arts community allege they too have been burned and it's another hit in a year marred by the pandemic.

Brown Paper Tickets facing legal action in U.S., including lawsuit from Washington State AG

Bella White, second from left, plays with the Lonely Heartstring Band at the 2019 Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival on Vancouver Island. Artistic director Robert Remington said the festival had used Brown Paper Tickets for six years previously with no issues. (Robert Remington)

Community theatre director Nicole Jennissen believed she did everything right staging her original play, Love in the Time of COVID, in September 2020.

It was written as a series of vignettes, keeping actors in two-or-three-person bubbles. It was performed outside obeying health guidelines. And it was completed inexpensively for non-profit Tumbleweed Theatre of Brooks, Alta.

"In fact, the only two lines on the budget were masks and hand sanitizer," Jennissen said. 

But the romantic comedy became a tragedy.

Nicole Jennissen, left, acts in a scene from Love in the Time of COVID with fellow performer Cassandra Socchia. (Nicole Jennissen)

Tumbleweed used Seattle-based Brown Paper Tickets to handle ticketing online to avoid cash but Brown Paper is facing complaints and legal action over allegations of not paying collected ticket proceeds.

Jennissen alleged Brown Paper owes $2,030 for Love in the Time of COVID. Despite repeatedly contacting the company, she has no idea when or if Tumbleweed will be paid.

"It's absolutely defeating," she said. "We put all of this effort in and the money that our patrons expected to come to us is not sitting with us."

A screenshot from Jennisson's Brown Paper Tickets account shows the $2,030 earned from Love in the Time of Covid. (Nicole Jennissen)

Other Canadian artists and organizations alleged they too are owed money from Brown Paper or their audiences are owed refunds for events cancelled by the pandemic.

Washington State is suing, claiming it has received 583 complaints and the company owes more than $6.75 million US  across the United States. 

The state's attorney general said 80,000 people in the U.S. may be affected by the company's conduct.

Artists and organizations in Canada, having spent up to 11 months trying to get answers from the company, are wondering when or if they or their audiences will ever see the money they say Brown Paper collected on their behalf. 

A scene from Love in the Time of Covid, staged in a city park in Brooks, Alta. (Nicole Jennissen)

Popular with grassroots artists

CBC News called and emailed Brown Paper several times to comment on this story but received no reply.

In a September statement, the company promised better communication.

"While we can't offer an estimated timeline for your specific refund at this moment, our team has been and continues to initiate full refunds to ticket holders... and pay event organizers," the statement read.

"Like many businesses, we were unprepared for a crisis of this scale but we are making headway."

Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson, seen here in 2017, alleged in a statement that 80,000 people in the U.S. have been impacted by Brown Paper Tickets' conduct. (Elaine Thompson/Associated Press)

Brown Paper is popular with smaller arts organizations for its low fees. 

Audience members purchase their ticket from Brown Paper online, then, after the event, Brown Paper passes collected money to event organizers, minus a service charge.

Jennissen said $2,030 might not seem like a lot but Tumbleweed relies solely on ticket sales for funding.

"When we can't do a lot of shows... that's a huge cut for us," she said. "This is going to affect the ability for us to do shows."

Brown Paper Tickets has posted statements online apologizing for poor communication and is blaming the inability to pay out some events on a rash of pandemic-related cancellations. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Festival hurting

Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival artistic director Robert Remington said his festival sold $20,415 of advance tickets through Brown Paper for their June 2020 jamboree on Vancouver Island. 

In April 2020, the pandemic forced the festival to cancel. Organizers told Brown Paper to issue refunds, which should have taken two to six weeks.

Omie Wise performs at the 2019 Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival. Remington says money lost due to the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 festivals might impact the growing festival's lineups going forward. (Robert Remington)

Almost 11 months later, no one has been paid back, Remington said, so the festival is reimbursing ticket holders from its own contingency fund.

"We just feel an obligation to our fans to take care of them," Remington said. "For an all-volunteer, community-run festival... $20,000 is a lot of money."

Refunding the tickets might mean a scaled-back festival going forward.

Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival artistic director Robert Remington says the festival will be back but might have to hire fewer headliners. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

'It's really frustrating'

Victoria-based roots rocker Stephen Fearing was to play a gig in March 2020. Brown Paper sold tickets online.

The show was cancelled over the pandemic. His promoter told Brown Paper to refund ticket buyers.

Some fans passed on a refund to donate $2,200 to Fearing but he still hasn't seen a cent.

Musician Stephen Fearing said he is amazed by the generosity of his fans but angry he never received their donation. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

"Their generosity never got to me," Fearing said. "It's really frustrating."

Marc Jenkins, another Victoria-based musician, had two Bob Dylan tribute shows at Herman's Jazz Club in May 2020.

The shows were cancelled with $700 of tickets sold through Brown Paper. No refunds have yet been given.

Musician Marc Jenkins said any donations from his cancelled shows in Victoria would be helpful. The band is made up of independent musicians who have struggled for work since the pandemic started. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

"The most frustrating part is just being left in the dark and having to answer emails from folks," Jenkins said. 

"I never got the money from them in the first place. I'm just standing in the middle getting yelled at."

Jenkins said some of his audience members wanted to donate their money as well but he hasn't been able to confirm how many and he hasn't received any cash.

"It might not seem like a lot of money… but it is important," Jenkins said. "It's tough when there's not many gigs coming in."

Marc Jenkins said his cancelled shows at Hermann's Jazz Club have led to numerous angry emails from would-be audience members unable to get a refund. (CHEK News)

Legal action

The lawsuit filed by Washington State is presently in the discovery stage, a spokesperson from the attorney general's office said this week.

While individuals are not eligible to join in attorney general enforcement actions, the spokesperson said, the attorney general's office "routinely" seeks court orders for financial restitution for all impacted consumers under the state's Consumer Protection Act.

At least two separate class action lawsuits have been filed in the U.S., but CBC hasn't seen any that are certified.

Pittsburgh-based law firm Carlson Lynch is behind one.

"It's sort of like musical chairs… when the music stopped, they were holding all this money," said lawyer Jamisen Etzel.

"Where did the money go?"

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten. Liam contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

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