On top of all the other difficulties artists are facing — gigs canceled, day jobs evaporating — some have made another unpleasant discovery. Money they’d already earned, from performances that had already happened, was disappearing from their bank accounts.
On March 21, for example, Seattle musician and producer Erin Jorgensen deposited a $1,935 check from Brown Paper Tickets, a Seattle-based ticket broker. That was box-office money from Weather, an eclectic evening of classical and experimental music she’d put together at Washington Hall in late February.
Five days later, Jorgensen got a text from her bank saying $1,935 had been withdrawn from her account — the check she had deposited from Brown Paper Tickets (BPT).
“At first, I thought I’d been hacked,” she said. “I didn’t realize you could take back a check that had already cleared. The person at the bank seemed confused, too.”
Later that day, she got an email from BPT: “We are sorry to inform you that given the current unprecedented situation with COVID-19, outstanding Brown Paper Tickets checks will not be honored.”
This was a widespread problem.
Hundreds of artists and arts groups, from Maine to Chicago to Seattle, felt the shock: Money they expected from BPT either didn’t arrive, or the checks bounced, or (as in Jorgensen’s case) money was deposited, then got sucked back out of bank accounts.
Some artists jumped on Facebook to accuse the ticket broker of malfeasance. By March 30, 10 had filed complaints with the Washington State Attorney General.
The 20-year-old BPT, which has grown from a local company to an international ticket broker, handles tens of thousands of events around the world each month. But in the past few weeks, an avalanche of pandemic-related pressures swamped the company, overwhelming its systems. In a flurry of confusing event cancellations and postponements, BPT founder and president William Scott Jordan said, the company and its bank lost control of their financial machinery — together, they decided to shut down the account that paid artists and organizations.
“We lost control over which payments were able to clear and which weren’t,” he said. “And we managed to piss off everybody.”
Suddenly, the checks BPT had mailed artists were no good — and some deposits artists had already made vanished.
In the meantime, the trickle-down effect has been huge, said Tony Lawry, artistic director of Chicago-based Theatre Above the Law. His company is owed $1,100 for “Adaptation,” its latest production. “I’ve got gas and electrical bills, rent isn’t being paid, some scenic artists are waiting for us to cut them checks.”
Since coronavirus-related quarantines will keep the theater from performing for the foreseeable future, he added, there’s no way to play catch-up.
Will Theatre Above the Law have to close?
“That’s a talk I have to have with the board,” he said.
“It’s a mess,” BPT’s Jordan said. “Everybody will get paid — it’s just going to take us some time. This is a huge backlog that will get cleared up. We have not been able to take care of our customers and clients the way we think they should be taken care of.”
Since its founding in 2000, BPT has enjoyed a David-vs.-Goliath narrative, and a reputation for being grassroots heroes in a predatory ticketing industry — the homegrown, Seattle alternative to megalodons like Ticketmaster, with modest service fees ($0.99 plus 5% of each ticket) and a focus on small- to mid-sized theaters, music venues and community events.
BPT handles ticket infrastructure so smaller organizations don’t have to — it sells tickets online and over the phone and then, when the event is over, mails the organizer the box-office earnings, minus BPT’s service fee.
That automated system of tracking ticket sales and paying artists and organizations what they’re owed, Jordan said, has worked smoothly for two decades — even during the pandemonium after Hurricane Sandy in New York, which complicated a tremendous number of events.
But this pandemic has been different.
Sudden cancellations of live events piled up, triggering an avalanche of refund requests. “In the second week of March, we went from being 30% off to 90-95% off,” Jordan said. The number of new events being created was understandably down — once states began to issue stay-at-home orders, that was a given.
But the real chaos came with the 10,000 events that, in a matter of days, were canceled, postponed, or abandoned (meaning the tickets were sold and the events were canceled, but the producers didn’t tell BPT).
Each of those events, Jordan explained, came with its own headache-inducing complications. All 10,000 of them have to be individually sorted out — event by event, and sometimes ticket by ticket — by BPT’s 65-member staff.
What was automated has become manual: Hence the backlog.
Jordan and BPT spokesperson Barb Morgen listed a few of the intricacies:
Some events were canceled and the organizers promised ticket-buyers refunds. Some events happened, but only a fraction of the people who bought tickets actually showed up, and organizers promised refunds to people who hadn’t attended. Some organizers asked their patrons to donate the price of their tickets instead of asking for refunds, which requires BPT to individually confirm which people want to donate and which want their money back.
In many cases, the tickets had been bought, the event date had passed, and BPT had already sent the organizers their box-office money as if the event had happened normally. That led to ticket buyers asking BPT for money, which was now in the hands of the event organizers.
Many events were postponed, leaving questions about whether the tickets that had been bought would be valid for a future date.
On top of all this, different cities, states and countries enacted different quarantine rules at different times, adding to the complications.
“So we ended up with a lot of events that were postponed a week, and then another week, and then either canceled or pushed back to later this year,” Jordan said. “There ended up being a lot of confusion.”
Adding to that confusion: The banks and credit-card companies BPT deals with were in the midst of their own pandemic-related mayhem, slowing down an already dangerously slow process.
“I don’t want to shift blame,” Jordan said, “but our bank wasn’t able to handle the individual transactions anymore, either. Checks were going through that we specifically asked not to go through.”
By that point, BPT was having trouble tracking what should go out to whom, so the company and its bank shut down its outbound account — essentially slamming the lid shut on the pot of money flowing out to artists and organizations. But at that point, some of that money was only partway out of the pot.
Some checks, like Jorgensen’s, had already “cleared” in the artists’ banks, but the money had not yet been actually transferred — per U.S. banking practice — resulting in the “vanishing” money.
“That part came as a bit of a surprise to us, too,” Jordan said. “It was messy. In hindsight, there may have been better ways to control that.”
But even if BPT survives, it’s unclear whether its reputation will. “My board has asked me not to use them anymore,” Lawry, of Theatre Above the Law in Chicago, said. Jorgensen and other Seattle artists, like Butoh dancer and choreographer Vanessa Skantze, said they’re also wary of returning.
“We’re going to survive this and thrive and help all communities do the same,” BPT spokesperson Morgen insisted, adding that the company has shifted gears to online and streaming events, which are running smoothly so far.
“This is a temporary issue and very isolated,” she said. “In 20 years, we’ve never had an event organizer who hasn’t gotten paid — and we’re not going to start now.”