U.S. ticketing company's box office bust costing grassroots Canadian artists
Brown Paper Tickets facing legal action in U.S., including lawsuit from Washington State AG
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
'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.
"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.
"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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.