Ten dollars per month is a small price to pay for practically every piece of recorded music except anything by the Beatles. Which is why, late last year, I signed up for Spotify. Only two months in, however, I was out—and feeling as if I'd been ripped off. Turns out I'm not the only one.
Spotify Premium—the ad-free, mobile subscription arm of the streaming-music service, based in New York—has accumulated more than 5 million global users since it became available in the U.S. in 2011. All the kinks have surely been worked out, right? Not quite. When I signed up in December 2012, I was charged $9.99, the price for one month of service. The next day, my credit card was charged another $9.99. That's when the trouble began.
After exchanging emails with multiple customer-service reps, I gave up on a refund from Spotify and instead filed a claim with my bank, Wells Fargo. The funds were returned, and my Spotify login promptly stopped working. Fair enough.
But one month later, Spotify charged my credit card another $9.99. More emails ensued. The responses I received from my customer-support agent, though sympathetic, did little to quell my frustration. "I am sorry if I came across wrongly," one said. "I just meant the outcome was that we could not help you, and you ended up getting charged again. That is what we tried to prevent, as I knew the bank would not help you."
A dozen emails in, still without a refund, I received an explanation—a second account under my name was at fault for the erroneous charge. In both instances, with one phone call, my bank identified the charges and made things right.
And that illustrates the problem with Spotify: It's not about the 10 bucks, but rather how the company addresses account problems, with inefficient, web-based customer support; blind shuffling between representatives; and a lack of timely resolutions.
My friend had a similar problem. When he canceled his service in January, he immediately received a pair of $9.99 charges and was told his subscription would continue until March. When he responded via email that he wanted his service canceled immediately and the extra charge removed, he received this note:
"The two charges that you see on your statement are both linked to your Spotify account. It's possible you accidentally pressed the subscription button twice. But don't worry about having lost any payments. Our system has taken account of both payments and has extended your Premium subscription to two months. This means that you will not be charged again on your next billing date. Your subscription will continue as usual the month after. However, if you would like the second payment refunded and your subscription to continue with normal monthly payments next month, just let us know your date of birth and the last four digits of your payment card."
In other words, it's probably your fault, but even if it's not, never fear—we'll just continue your service and keep charging you. (My friend's money was refunded after he mentioned I was putting together this story.)
Of course, Spotify isn't the first web-based subscription service to mishandle billing complaints. In 2003, AOL settled with the Federal Trade Commission over charges of unfair business practices, which included billing Internet subscribers after they requested their accounts be canceled and failing to properly execute account closures.
But I wanted to speak with someone at Spotify USA Inc. My conversation with Graham James, head of communications, was terse and tense, and most of my questions went unanswered.
For instance, I asked about user-submitted web-contact forms. On the Spotify support forums, moderators converse with users seeking help on issues ranging from playlist syncing to billing inquiries. Search the word "refund" on the forums, and you'll find 40 pages of related threads, with complaints about being charged for free trials, as well as duplicate charges.
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For almost every question on the forums, moderators instruct users to submit web-contact forms to reach a customer-support rep. When users later complain about receiving only an automated reply, the moderators instruct them to reply to those "no-reply" emails in order to reach an agent. Confusing, right?
James did not know whether those extra steps were necessary to get in touch with a representative. In fact, James said, he could not discuss the internal workings of Spotify's customer support.
And what happens when your account is deleted? Does Spotify hold on to your credit card information? "We don't really discuss that," James said. "Suffice it to say, there is a very secure method, and anybody's payment is kept at the highest security imaginable."
But how could anyone trust Spotify? To me, one thing is clear: Spotify is doing something wrong.