After two months, and several broken promises, retired sportswriter Tracy Ringolsby is still waiting for his $13,444 from Seattle-based ticket broker Brown Paper Tickets. He’s not happy about it.
“As a retired sportswriter I am basically living on Social Security, which I can assure you is not a large amount of money,” he said. “I’m disappointed in Brown Paper Tickets, disappointed in mankind. Who do you trust anymore?”
He’s one of a crowd. In late March, clients of the Seattle-based online ticket broker — many of them artists and small-business owners — said they haven’t been paid for events, some dating back to last year. Some, still unpaid, have been turning to the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
“My office received 33 complaints regarding Brown Paper Tickets,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said last week. (As of this writing, the number is up to 39.) “That’s a very large number of complaints in a relatively short period of time. We take this very seriously.” Ferguson said that while the office is looking into several complaints, he could not confirm whether it has launched a formal investigation.
Brown Paper Tickets (BPT) had apologized earlier, citing coronavirus-related havoc, and gave itself a grace period of two to three weeks to play catch-up. That grace period is over.
As of press time, BPT was unavailable for comment beyond a written statement: “We recognize the burden our system failure has placed on the artists and event organizers we built our business to serve. We apologize, and we are working to make it right.”
Ringolsby, who lives in Cheyenne, Wyoming, had fronted $13,350 to host a February community event called Wyoming Day at the Rockies — a chance for baseball fans with Wyoming roots to get together at a Colorado Rockies spring-training game. He never expected to make a profit and, on the advice of a friend, used Brown Paper Tickets to sell seats for the event.
On March 6, he received an email from BPT saying a check for $13,444 was on its way.
It didn’t arrive — and, after several phone calls, email exchanges and unfulfilled promises from BPT, it still hasn’t. Meanwhile, Ringolsby said, that debt is parked on his credit card, gathering interest.
Once a small, local ticket broker, BPT has grown in recent years (it has phone-support numbers listed for France, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Mexico and South Africa) but still acts as a beginner’s virtual box office, mostly for modest-sized events: theater productions, concerts, cosplay pub crawls. You set up an event, you sell tickets through BPT and, according to the company’s terms of service, around 10 days after the event, BPT will mail you a check for your box-office earnings, minus its per-ticket fee of $0.99 plus 5%.
Until recently, BPT had enjoyed a good reputation, sometimes called the David to Ticketmaster’s Goliath. One unpaid client, the Taste of Philadelphia Food Tour, had been doing business with the company for 10 years, but is now waiting on $2,782 in bounced checks from events as far back as December 2019 (the checks weren’t deposited until March 16), plus $207 for March events canceled by coronavirus lockdowns.
Other clients waiting for checks include Seattle-based Butoh performer Vanessa Skantze ($740); Some Theater Company from Bangor, Maine ($14,040); the Motion State Dance Festival of Providence, Rhode Island ($5,024); and many others. Like Ringolsby, many had already fronted the money it required to produce the events.
And some, like Philadelphia jazz musician Barry Wahraftig (owed $2,200) are out of work until the coronavirus lockdowns are over. “My band is the Hot Club of Philadelphia, and what’s what I do,” he said. “I also do some gigs at senior centers. But pretty much everything is canceled. When it all breaks down, which it has now, that’s tough. I could get by for about two months on that two grand.”
In late March, BPT explained the trouble this way: The 20-year-old company handles tens of thousands of events around the world each month. The pandemic, with its lockdowns and panic, created an avalanche of cancellations and postponements — and that avalanche was confusing. Some events were canceled, some postponed, some happened but only a sliver of ticket buyers showed up and organizers promised refunds to the rest, then turned around and asked no-shows to consider donating their tickets instead.
The chaos snarled BPT’s normally automated system, co-founder and president William Scott Jordan said, so the company hastily turned off the faucet for all outgoing money while employees painstakingly sorted through events, determining what money should go where.
“It’s a mess,” Jordan told The Seattle Times in March. “Everybody will get paid — it’s just going to take some time.”
But many still-unpaid clients are skeptical of BPT’s explanation, saying that since their events happened before coronavirus lockdowns — sometimes months before — their ticket money shouldn’t be that hard to find.
“The million-dollar question is: Where is the money that they collected from our shows?” asked Michael Granato of Bistro Romano restaurant and dinner theater in Philadelphia (owed $5,520).
The language on Brown Paper Tickets’ Facebook page was even stronger. “It is criminal that our event money has been used for other purposes instead of being escrowed for our specific event,” event producer Mark Gasper wrote, saying he was owed $2,300. “This money should not have been used for payroll or overhead or to refund ticket purchasers for unrelated canceled events. Those expenses should be paid from BPT’s own capital.”
In March, Jordan, the company president, denied that BPT had been paying off refunds for canceled future events with the box-office earnings from past events: “That does not match up with our model. That is not the case.”
Ferguson said his office had been able to recover money for two complainants, one in Washington and one in Arizona.
“While the outcomes for these two consumers are positive,” he said, “many complaints remain unresolved.”