Musical act Reesa Renee is trying to make it big. This summer she performed at clubs and festivals in Atlanta, Philadelphia, and her hometown of Washington D.C., tweeting, ‘gramming, and YouTubing as many moments as she could to promote her strong neo-soul sound to the world.
And it’s working. With more than 25,000 combined fans on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, she has built a respectable digital cult following over the last few years.
While the singer wants to be successful as a musical artist, she also has another motivator: to pay off her student loans with a hit song.
“For me, all I’m saying, in order to get Sallie Mae off my back, is one hit song. One,” she says. “My immediate this-year type of goal is to get 100,000 people to download my songs, and I don’t think it’s that outrageous to get that.”
Of course, she’s not the first music artist to have a muse named Sallie Mae. Earlier this year New Orleans-based rapper Dee-1 had a breakout single about getting out of student loan debt.
Renee’s story underscores the increasing tension between choosing a career built on passionate pursuits versus pragmatic choices (e.g. a steady paycheck). She did not finish her undergraduate degree—unwilling to rack up even more debt—when what she really wanted to do was sing.
Student loan debt can be especially challenging for artists who, more than most, may not have a regular income as they move from gig to gig.
Across all types of undergraduate programs, a 2016 graduate left school with more than $37,000 of debt on average, the Wall Street Journal reported. For artists hoping to put that extra polish on their craft, the all-in cost for two-year MFA degree can be as much as $100,000 for a top program.
However, a successful career as an artist and a solid education don’t have to be mutually exclusive. For aspiring artists, there are resources such Educated Artists, a new nonprofit organization that focuses on promoting awareness about financing a higher education in the arts.
“Our goal is to remind student artists and artistic student debtors that they are not alone, and there is light at the end of the tunnel,” says founder Derrick Trumbly of the year-old nonprofit.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
“We talk repercussions of debt repayment while trying to finance an artistic career and a life, alternative ways to get a degree, and the importance of continued practice and education throughout an artistic career,” Trumbly says.
Trumbly, an actor himself who earned his B.A. degree from Columbia College Chicago, stresses that higher education institutions are not likely to give prestige to an artist’s work—rather that’s built through talent and the reception of the work by the community. However, a degree from a good school can help make sure a working artist can keep the lights on with a good side job.
“An institution helps immerse the willing, and the degree helps with secondary sources of income, which are often necessary even without student debt on your shoulders,” he says, “but the prestige of the degree does not equate to the prestige of the artist.”
In 2011, Renee won Amateur Night at the famed Apollo Theatre in Harlem. Over the past five years, she’s been building on that exposure with regular gigs in Washington, D.C. where she lives. To support her music career does a variety of paid side jobs, including doing brand ambassador work, working as a gym attendant, and delivering food—all flexible enough to allow her to also tour and do shows.
But even if the muses are new, the hustle is ages old when it comes to working as a live music act.
“If it’s a good opportunity, I’ll just ask to break even,” she says. “But at the end of the day, I still have to pay my band. They need a set price for what they’re doing. I, as an entertainer, need a set price too, but if anybody’s going to take the hit, it’s going to be me.”
Other artists find the balance between passion and pragmatism looks as much like an evolution than a one-time decision.
Earnest client Noel True was an actor for many years. Even with success starring on popular TV series, she struggled to make her student loan payments on her artist’s income and had to use loan forbearance several times in the decade after she graduated with her MFA.
Eventually, she made the switch from acting to starting her own production company—that move shored up her income and positioned her to refinance her loans as well.
“Student loans used to be something that I thought about constantly,” True says about her days in the acting studio.
For now, singer Renee is committed to pursuing her passion as an artist.
“If I didn’t have that weight on my back would I be working as hard for music right now? Maybe not,” she says. “Maybe I wouldn’t be fighting for the life that I dream of so hard because I wouldn’t have that debt on my back and I’d be comfortable.”