- Musicians who take out student loans to pay for a college education often struggle to find a financially feasible way to follow their passion.
- In addition to student debt, the high costs associated with being a musician prohibit many from pursuing a full-time career in music.
- One artist we spoke to, Nashville musician Rayland Baxter, told us about the challenges of making $600 monthly loan payments while pursuing a career in music.
Nashville musician Rayland Baxter, 35, wasn’t supposed to have student debt.
In 2002, he went to Loyola University Maryland in Baltimore on a full-ride scholarship as a lacrosse player. But Baxter, a communications major, had to take some time off after his sophomore year, and his coach told him that his scholarship would be reinstated when he returned.
Baxter went back to Loyola in 2005 to the news that his scholarship was given to another student. Tuition was $36,000 annually, and Baxter was forced to take out loans for his junior and senior years.
A nationwide problem
Baxter is nowhere near alone in this struggle. More than 44 million Americans have student debt – collectively, Americans owe almost $1.5 trillion in student loans, according to the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Taking out student loans has practically become an expected part of going to college. Even though more Americans are attending college to make higher wages upon graduation, the cost of higher education has risen dramatically. In the past three decades, prices at private nonprofit four-year schools has doubled while public four-year schools has tripled, according to the College Board’s 2018 Trends in College Pricing Report.
Although college degrees are not necessary to become a musician, some chose to pursue the security of a degree as a Plan B. However, the debts incurred along the way can prevent some musicians from ever being able to carry out their Plan A.
Additionally, the sheer costs musicians must spend to simply perform and to get their music heard can be prohibitive for some. From instruments to studio time to merchandise to tours, musicians have to sink a fair chunk of funds into their craft, unlike many other jobs.
Guitars, for instance, can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars. Studio time can be anywhere from $40 an hour to hundreds per hour. If musicians choose to go a more DIY route, they still need to pay for recording equipment and software. When it comes to touring, musicians have to consider buying or renting a van and paying for expenses throughout the tour, including gas, food, and hotels or AirBnBs.
Compare that to a traditional nine-to-five job where your expenses are mainly limited to gas to and from the office. More conventional careers also tend to have other important perks, such as health insurance and a retirement plan.
Is it even possible to be a musician despite student loans?
Travis Hornsby is the founder of Student Loan Planner, a consulting agency that helps college graduates with $50,000 to $1 million in student debt. He thinks that even if you have debt, you can still pursue your passion.
“For most people who want to be an artist, student loans don’t have to stand in the way,” Hornsby said.
He advises his musically inclined clients to never take out private loans and to take advantage of an income-based repayment plan after they graduate.
Once you find the right plan for you, you don’t have to worry where the money to pay off your loans is coming from; rather, you can focus on other important finances, such as rent and food, Hornsby said.
When Baxter quit the lacrosse team after losing his scholarship, he found what truly interested him: music.
“The last two years of college for me – I had a cover band, and we all sucked, and it was awesome,” he said. “My roommates’ parents, I remember them asking me my senior year, ‘Are you going to go off and play music?’ I was like, ‘No, this is just a hobby. I’m going to move to Colorado, find me a cabin, a dog, and that’s it.'”
At that point, he didn’t think he was going to turn his hobby into a career, but after his first two years out of college, he decided to move back to Nashville to pursue music more seriously. There, Baxter lived rent-free with family friends and worked part-time manual labor gigs so that he had more time to write his refreshing yet poignant folk-infused songs.
All this time, representatives from Sallie Mae, a student loan company, were calling sometimes seven times a day and writing letters about paying back the more than $70,000 that Baxter owed.
One of those calls came when Baxter was going to Chicago with friends to attend Lollapalooza a few years ago. That’s when the idea for the song “Casanova” was born. The funky, bass-leading track made it onto Baxter’s third album, “Wide Awake,” released last year. Baxter has released three records and has been signed to ATO Records since 2012.
Baxter also released a comical music video for “Casanova” where he brings Sallie Mae to life and injects some lightheartedness to his discouraging situation: He now pays about $600 monthly after not making a payment for five years.
“It’s just there for the rest of my life as far as I know,” Baxter said.
The larger issue of privilege
You could consider Zach Sullentrup, 24, one of the lucky ones. In contrast to Baxter, he did not take out any loans to attend the University of Missouri, where he earned a degree in journalism.
Sullentrup now works as a copywriter at an advertising agency in St. Louis. Since high school, he has played in bands, and he is currently involved with two, Tidal Volume and The Astounds, and he works as a solo artist as well.
“I started taking lessons when I was a kid,” Sullentrup said. “It immediately clicked to me that that was something I wanted to do, either as a career or just as a hobby or passion throughout my life.”
Although Sullentrup doesn’t have debt from college, he has heavily invested financially into his career as a musician.
That’s why Sullentrup works a full-time job.
“The trade-off of that is when you’re working a full-time job, you don’t also have the time to work on [music] and invest in those things with time the same way you’d want to,” he said. “It’s a kind of a wild catch-22.”
Having to pay back student loans and the enormous financial burden that comes with being a musician creates an insular bubble in the music industry where the most privileged are able to rise to the top. Even though the internet has democratized the creation and release of music in some ways, it’s harder to stand out now more than ever.
“There are those years of drudging through it and figuring it out,” Sullentrup said. “There’s a lot of trial and error there; there’s a lot of wasted time and money. If you’re not someone who can afford to waste time or money, then it’s really difficult to break through.”