Cameron Sankey copes with COVID by playing music, talking tech

Cameron Sankey copes with COVID by playing music, talking tech
Cameron Sankey had 2020 tour dates booked everywhere from Nashville to Trinidad and Tobago. The pandemic cleared his calendar but hasn't prevented him from making music. (contributed)

One lesson Cameron Sankey has learned from the COVID-19 pandemic is that gigs, plans and money earned can change in an instant.

“Everything used to be go, go, go. … I had two or three gigs a week, traveling out of the (U.S. and) state with other artists,” said Sankey, a full-time musician, music producer, mixing engineer, writer-arranger, keyboardist and percussionist. “I had up to a year’s worth of dates on the book before COVID-19 hit. I was booked to go back to Nigeria this year. I was supposed to go to London. … Trinidad and Tobago was on the books. I had a (gig with) Yolanda Adams; a Mother’s Day concert set up in Nashville that was canceled; and a concert in November with India.Arie. … These were big-ticketed events. I’ve lost substantially from my income this year.”

For Sankey, virtual performances are the new norm, just as they have become for other musicians.

“I’ve done a couple of hangouts, where I play live to an audience on Facebook,” he said. “I’ve done concerts via Facebook (with a full band) and two or three Instagram Live sessions.”

The P.D. Jackson-Olin High School grad who studied music education at Miles College found alternate ways to supplement his income.

“I’ve tapped into tech talks. … I’ve always had musicians ask how to work around certain technical issues with streaming live, so I said, ‘Hey, I’ll host a tech talk.’ It was really successful, and people are still calling to ask if they can buy a video copy. This has created a revenue (stream),” Sankey said.

Also, during virtual performances, he pins his Cash App handle, a username that allows access to a payment application that enables direct peer-to-peer payment via a mobile device — and viewers have been happy to donate, he said.

“I think everybody as a whole understands that (musicians) whose living is gig-based are really suffering because it’s not salaried; you’re (not guaranteed an) amount of money every two weeks. For some musicians, income has stopped completely. It’s been really heartbreaking to talk to some of them because they don’t know how long their savings are going to last.”

Sankey and his associates have “been having meetings within our circle about setting yourself up, having a savings account to have something to fall back on, and diversifying money to avoid spending out of one bucket,” he said. “We’re talking about how to shop, where to shop, where to buy groceries, where to get more for your money. We’ve been having conversations within the entertainment community.”

Sankey, an Ensley native, serves as the musical director for More Than Conquerors Faith Church in West End. He also is a recording engineer with his own company, Playworx Music Group, a full-service music provider that includes studio production, arranging, tracking, editing, mixing, songwriting and live performances. During the quarantine, he’s been working from his home in Alabaster.

“I have had the opportunity to set myself up at home and have my recording studio, so I have still been working on projects with artists from overseas — some in Nigeria and London and one artist all the way in Tokyo. All of this is to supplement income, keep the bills paid and keep food in the kids’ mouths.”

The husband and father of five began playing behind mainstream acts in 2002, when he went on tour with Grammy Award-winning neo-soul singer and songwriter Anthony Hamilton. He’s also worked with renowned producer, arranger, orchestra leader and UAB music professor Henry Panion III, Ph.D., who also is the owner, founder and CEO of Woodlawn-based Audiostate 55 Recording Studios and Entertainment. Sankey credits Panion for many of his mainstream opportunities.

Sankey has worked with several other respected acts as well, including his grandmother, national gospel recording artist Katie Sankey, R&B soul group Tony! Toni! Toné! and local legend and nationally recognized jazz musician Ona Watson, in addition to Adams and Arie.

As the crisis continues, Sankey has an important message to fans of music everywhere: “Support local artists, musicians and small-business owners. We need the support.”

For more information about Cameron Sankey, follow him on Facebook @csankey and Instagram @thecamsankey. Musicians interested in a copy of Sankey’s tech talk can send an email and $7 to [email protected]

This is part of a series about Birmingham musicians in quarantine. Read previous stories about Cameron “DJ KC” Childress and Kenneth Rembert.

This story originally appeared in The Birmingham Times.

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