After receiving nearly 600 consumer complaints from around the country about Brown Paper Tickets, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Seattle-based ticket broker in King County Superior Court.
According to the lawsuit, Brown Paper Tickets owes $6 million to event producers (many of them artists, small businesses and nonprofits) who were never paid their box-office revenues and $760,000 in refunds to people who bought tickets for events that were canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The State alleges that Brown Paper Tickets engaged in unfair or deceptive acts or practices in violation of the Consumer Protection Act,” the complaint says. “Brown Paper Tickets had failed to remit payment to event organizers for events that took place and has failed to provide refunds to ticket buyers who purchased tickets for cancelled or rescheduled events.”
The complaint asks the court to order restitution payments to both ticket buyers and event producers, and to fine Brown Paper Tickets up to $2,000 per violation of the Consumer Protection Act.
Brown Paper Tickets could not immediately be reached for comment.
Founded in 2000, Brown Paper Tickets started as a small virtual box office helping theaters, musicians and other small entities sell their tickets to the public. Its user-friendly system and relatively modest service fees (5% of each ticket price, plus $0.99 per ticket) made it a popular choice for small to mid-sized nonprofits and event producers.
In recent years, Brown Paper Tickets has grown (it added phone-support numbers for customers in Hong Kong, Mexico, South Africa, New Zealand and France) and enjoyed a good reputation, sometimes called the David to TicketMaster’s Goliath.
But complaints began to percolate in March. When events were canceled because of the pandemic, ticket-buyers weren’t getting refunds — and event producers weren’t getting the money either.
Leah Marcus, the business manager for Colorado-based dance company Between the Bones, said her company had been doing business with Brown Paper Tickets for 10 years with no complaints — until August, when it staged four socially distanced, outdoor performances selling $2,614 in tickets through Brown Paper Tickets. Between the Bones is still waiting for its check.
Other clients, whose events happened well before COVID-19 shutdowns, also say they haven’t been paid. Still others received checks that bounced or found that checks from Brown Paper Tickets were mysteriously withdrawn from their bank accounts.
Brown Paper Tickets blamed the pandemic and the sudden blizzard of event cancellations and postponements for fouling its financial machinery.
“We lost control over which payments were able to clear and which weren’t,” the company’s founder and President William Scott Jordan said in March. “It’s a mess. Everybody will get paid — it’s just going to take some time.”
Some, like Tony Lawry, artistic director of Theatre Above the Law in Chicago, eventually got paid (in his case, $1,128). Many didn’t.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson acknowledged his office was looking into complaints back in April, but he would not confirm then whether it had launched a formal investigation. A spokesperson for the AG’s office said Wednesday that of the 583 complaints filed against Brown Paper Tickets, the office knows of 189 that have been paid or are in the process of being paid. A large number of those who filed complaints are community theaters, small arts organizations and individual artists, the AG’s office said.
In August, Seattle law firms filed two legal actions against Brown Paper tickets in King County Superior Court: one on behalf of event producers (petitioning the court to appoint a general receiver to seize the company’s assets), the other on behalf of ticket buyers (a class-action complaint requesting a jury trial).