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.”