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Officials shake down jobseeker for 8,500 euros in benefits over music hobby

Employment officials are calling on music hobbyist Tommi Ignatius to refund 8,500 euros in unemployment benefits. Ignatius claims that he practices music as a hobby and has never been paid for his efforts. However authorities have categorised him as a musical entrepreneur - and want their benefits paid back.

Image: Sini Salmirinne / Yle

Music hobbyist Tommi Ignatius lost his job as a media assistant in 2012. When he went to discuss his future with a career counsellor, he was encouraged to continue practicing music as a hobby.

He initially received an earnings-based unemployment benefit for two years, after which he was eligible for the basic unemployment benefit provided by the state benefits agency Kela. However that changed in April this year.

"I was considered a full-time entrepreneur and they wanted back 8,500 euros in benefits paid. On top of that, they provided a date when I started 'my business' that was pulled straight out of a hat," Ignatius said.

The jobseeker explained that he had published an album on the music streaming service Spotify. He had compiled the album alone and had not earned any money from it.

"I have not received money for anything. I started to learn how to compose, produce and record on my own initiative, as the career counselor advised. I’ve spent about 10 hours a week on this, so about two hours on week nights," he added.

However at the end of April, when Ignatius received a letter from his local employment office, saying that he may have been misinformed on unemployment benefit policies.

Hobbies don't count as employment

In April this year officials introduced a new system by which gig workers who use an invoicing service for their work, would be re-assigned to the voluntary pension scheme for the self-employed.

According to Ignatius, he did not belong to this group, as he had not used a billing service to provide professional musical services. He had merely continued his musical hobby while he was an unemployed jobseeker.

However the letter from the authorities wanted to know when he published his album on Spotify, when he started and finished work on the album, and whether or not he had been working in a studio. He was also asked whether he was paid for making the album and how much time he spent on it daily.

"I have continuously said that this is a hobby, and that I have always been available for work," Ignatius declared. He admitted to playing the occasional wedding for fun, but pointed out that officials were specifically interested in the album he released in 2016.

Authorities demand answers

The authorities followed-up their initial letter with another missive one week ago, in which they informed him that he had no right to the unemployment benefit, because he was employed as a full-time entrepreneur from March 18, 2016.

Ignatius said that he suspects that the date coincides with the day when he published his home-made album on Spotify.

"Although I did it in my own home and it was completely do-it-yourself. It’s a bit like if you couldn’t even cook food at home for your friends without being considered a professional chef," Ignatius scoffed.

Miika Tarhio, a contracts manager with the Finnish Musicians Association, said that Ignatius faces an uphill struggle getting the authorities to reverse their decision.

"The official should correct the assessment," he noted.

Weighing into the debate was Martti Mustonen, entrepreneurial service manager with the Häme employment office. Mustonen said that in general, hobbies should not affect unemployment benefits. However he declined commenting on Ignatius’ specific case.

Music for pleasure, not for profit

Contracts manager Tarhio said he had not encountered any similar cases among professional musicians.

"If you release a recording at your own expense, that does not make you an entrepreneur. Making music for a hobby in a home studio is completely different from making music professionally in a studio," he remarked.

However he noted that cases in which people receive advertising income from sharing music videos on social media could be problematic when it comes to receiving unemployment benefits.

According to Tarhio the problems encountered in creative fields have more to do with the fact that employers and service providers see employment contracts as a business relationship, although a gig musician might be permanently employed.

"When we talk about a regular basic contract for a gig and freelance musicians with no companies, business IDs or other hallmarks of a business, they are still considered to be some kind of professional."

A jobseeker who is a full-time entrepreneur is not eligible to unemployment benefits, but job-seekers who are part-time entrepreneurs can receive an adjusted benefit.

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