Recently, Chuck Cannon facilitated his “Rules & Tools” songwriting workshop for ASG members, which turned out to be one of the best workshops we have ever hosted. The 20+ writers in attendance received a wealth of expertise and strategies sure to ignite their creativity.
Chuck Cannon is one of Nashville’s most accomplished and successful songwriters. He is also a uniquely bad-ass guitar player, a radically honest and thought provoking lyricist, and one of the funniest, coolest cats walking the planet. On top of all that, he is a remarkably thoughtful and generous teacher of songwriting and creativity in general, who, even while he is teaching you how to write better songs and impressing you with his professional chops, reminds you that if you intend to write professionally for Nashville’s Music Row that he is your competition. If you are going to beat him out of a potential cut, you are going to have to work harder than he does. And, Chuck Cannon works hard, likely harder than the vast majority of his competition. Yet, he still maintains that if songwriting success can happen for him, it can happen for you too. If you are willing to work hard.
The planned 3-hour workshop ran to nearly four hours, and Chuck continued to hang around and patiently answer questions until every last songwriter attendee had left the building. The workshop was chock full of nuggets of wisdom gleaned from his long career in Nashville and covered a wide range of topics, each of which is worthy of its own blog entry. So today, I publish the first in a series of Song Doctor blog articles recapping Chuck’s “Rules & Tools” workshop. The others will be posted over the next week or so as today we begin the series with “The One and Only Unbreakable Rule.”
For the most part, the “rules” of songwriting are more like guidelines than strict rules that cannot be broken. One will never be at a loss to find exceptions to the rule of rules. However, the rules are important, even essential, especially if you aspire to a professional songwriting life where your songcrafting intersects with the rules of commerce.
Notwithstanding this caveat, virtually every single rule of songwriting can, at one time or another, be ignored, bent, stretched, even altogether broken and still result in a great song. It might even be a commercially viable song, which makes it great by another standard. However, do not be lulled into a false sense of complacency if you are so rewarded, because it could get you believing that it would be okay to break the one and only unbreakable rule.
You have to do the work!
There is no way around this rule. If you break this rule, you pass a death sentence on your songwriting and indeed on your creative life in general. Be advised, this “rule” is no mere guideline like the others. In truth, it is a creative principle, a spiritual law. It stands attentively right alongside the principle of cause and effect.
If you do not do the work, you will not even write bad songs, much less amazing songs that have the potential to become popular hits and generate the elusive “mail box money” that both amateur and professional songwriters covet. I am not advocating that commercial aspirations should be the only goal. However, I am illuminating the truth that without doing the work nothing is possible.
A word to the wise, be aware that there are many activities that look like “the work” but are in truth distractions from the work. Many of these activities can be beneficial to your overall professional life as a developing songwriter and they are not of themselves necessarily deleterious to your efforts. But they are not substitutes for the work itself.
Do not allow the busy-ness and activity of your life to serve as an impediment or barrier to actually sitting down with your instruments of creativity and put a song to paper the old fashioned way, or even the digital way. Whatever suits your process and serves your creative output. The operative word here being, output.
Do not talk about writing songs. Write songs!
Do not talk about songs you have written. Write new songs!
Or, revise an old song. Or write a haiku, or a poem or a blog entry about songwriting for your website. All of these are acceptable, provided you do your best to create something new every single day.
You might not write a song as good as the one you wrote yesterday, or five years ago, but you will be daily pledging your allegiance to the one and only unbreakable rule: Do the work!
If you do, you will find the work itself is the reward.