Sonoma County nonprofits cry foul against Brown Paper Tickets

Tina Marchetti, executive director of Occidental Center for the Arts, knew her nonprofit wasn’t the only one that had a problem with Brown Paper Tickets. The Redwood Arts Council, a group Marchetti has frequently worked with, also was owed money by the online ticket service. She heard secondhand stories about other affected groups.

So Marchetti, who lives in Guerneville, started a Facebook page in May and called it Stiffed by Brown Paper Tickets. There she invited guests to post their grievances.

“Strength in numbers,” Marchetti said. “I had no idea it was as widespread as it is. I didn’t know how big Brown Paper Tickets’ business is.”

There are so many comments on Marchetti’s Facebook site now that it’s hard to reach the bottom of the page, because you have to reload so many times on the descent. And it still represents only a fraction of the organizations and individual ticket buyers who claim they were ripped off by Brown Paper Tickets.

According to an action filed by the state of Washington on Sept. 30, Attorney General Bob Ferguson had received 583 complaints against the Seattle-based ticket agency. The company owed approximately $6 million to event organizers and $760,000 to ticket buyers. As many as 80,000 consumers could be entitled to refunds, according to Ferguson’s office.

The number of complaints had grown to 823 as of Friday, according to a spokeswoman for Ferguson. She had no updated numbers on the total debt. Meanwhile, the Better Business Bureau currently notes more than 1,000 customer complaints against Brown Paper Tickets.

Some of them arose in Sonoma County. In addition to the two arts groups, aggrieved parties include the Santa Rosa Symphony League, Friends of Rio Nido and Sonoma County Roller Derby.

“At this point, we’re beyond frustrated,” said Kris Olmstead, who serves as the roller derby team’s financial officer and skates under the name Hell K.O. Kitty. “We’ve been patient, we’ve tried to work with them. Overall, the lack of communication has been very disrespectful.”

Olmstead said Brown Paper Tickets owes Sonoma County Roller Derby $2,550. She acknowledges it isn’t a huge amount — one organization, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Idaho Section, claimed a loss of $41,120 — but insists it’s significant for a small nonprofit. The skate team lays out expenses for rental of its practice facility and its home venue, Grace Pavilion at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, plus money for referees, DJ and raffle items.

Proceeds from ticket sales are supposed to reimburse the club for those expenses. It hosted a couple of events in 2020 before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The revenue went in to Brown Paper Tickets. It never trickled down to Sonoma County Roller Derby, she said.

In a statement, Brown Paper Tickets ascribed its struggles to the pandemic and apologized for the hardship the company caused its partners.

“With thousands of events canceled, postponed, or abandoned due to COVID-19, the process of reviewing accounts for settlement has been frustratingly slow for everyone, but the Brown Paper Ticket team continues to work through the backlog of refund requests,” the statement read. “Since April, we have paid more than $1.5 million to ticket buyers (including all service fees) and event organizers. The company continues to process requests and issue full refunds and payments daily.”

There appears to be truth to that last claim, as some of the people posting on Stiffed by Brown Paper Tickets have reported being at least partially reimbursed lately.

Occidental Center for the Arts received about $3,000 after it complained to Brown Paper Tickets about nonpayment, Marchetti said. The center was owed more than $9,000 following performances early this year, she said.

“The February shows, we had three sold-out events, which for us is huge,” Marchetti said. “I can’t even explain how bad that hurt.”

What galls the alleged victims most is that Brown Paper Tickets continues to book events and accept money for tickets. Brown Paper Tickets’ website presents a long list of upcoming events. They recently included a ramen pop-up benefiting two educational groups at Windsor High School (Friday), an event at Robert Ferguson Observatory in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park (Saturday) and a business education seminar put on by the Sonoma County Growers Alliance, a cannabis association (next Wednesday).

“We got a little inkling that something was amiss about halfway into sales,” said Marie Ganister, a Windsor High teacher who, as the coordinator of the school’s Vineyard Academy, was heavily involved in the high-end ramen feed. “About 75 tickets deep, a friend of mine who works with the Russian River Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence said, ‘Oh, Brown Paper Tickets? We worked with them on a bingo tournament, and they got a bunch of our money.’ But I didn’t stop. I teach full-time. I had no bandwidth left for it.”

Ganister said she and fellow teacher David Beal, who helps run the other Windsor High program involved in the fundraiser, Nueva School for the Performing Arts, had fronted about $400 of their own money to get the pop-up running. Now all she can do is hope for the best.

Ganister is especially dismayed because she has worked with Brown Paper Tickets in the past, without a hitch. That’s a common story. Marchetti said Occidental Center for the Arts’ relationship with the ticket company goes back nearly a decade. She noticed they were taking longer to pay in 2019. When she inquired, her sales rep explained that Brown Paper Tickets had moved to a new accounting system. By the time the pandemic slammed the brakes on the economy in March, the company had already fallen behind.

As live events were canceled due to COVID restrictions, the burden shifted somewhat to individual ticket purchasers, who were entitled to refunds they never received.

The mess is a blow to nonprofits, who had come to rely on Brown Paper Tickets as a more affordable alternative to giant companies like Ticketmaster. Brown Paper Tickets adds only 5% of face value, plus a flat 99-cent charge, to each ticket. So, for example, a $20 ticket would wind up costing the customer a relatively affordable $21.99. The ticket agency receives the money, keeps $1.99 and forwards the rest to the presenting organization.

“Now there is no faith,” Marchetti said. “In my role, I don’t see how I can jeopardize future revenue by holding anyone in suspense. So I’ve got a system where the money goes right into OCA’s Paypal account.”

The Washington attorney general’s complaint states that Brown Paper Tickets is liable for civil penalties of up to $2,000 per violation, plus attorneys’ fees. Ferguson’s representative confirmed that anyone who can demonstrate damage is eligible. But Marchetti, like many drawn into the financial quagmire, holds out little hope of getting paid at this point. She notes that Brown Paper Tickets is an LLC, limiting the liability of its top executives.

Olmstead said Sonoma County Roller Derby considered small claims court, but couldn’t justify traveling to Seattle to argue the case. She had one other thought.

“I submitted it to Judge Judy,” Olmstead said. “The first reason is I thought it would be fun, because I love her. And two, the show actually pays the debt. Sonoma County Roller Derby would be paid if she found in our favor.”

You can reach Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Skinny_Post.

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