A Session Musician is a Musical Soldier. It takes serious physical and mental discipline to prepare yourself for every possible situation in advance. When it’s time to play, you have to be able to blend in instantly, using every tool you have. It’s almost as if you’re invisible as an individual, and you serve the collective (the Artist or whatever music is happening around you at the moment). You don’t want to stand out or attract too much attention — if people are watching you (and if this isn’t your solo), you’re probably doing something wrong. And the maddening thing is, you never know what specific knowledge or experience will be called for in any situation. If you learn a thousand things, maybe only #753 and #4 will be used tonight. Ultimately, it won’t be about you and your original ideas, so learn to shut up. Examples of Session Musicians would be… well, just read the tiny credits on a Jewel album.
An Artist skips all of that and makes a personal statement about the world. It doesn’t matter how many semesters of 17th Century Harmony he took, because he doesn’t need to audition to play his own music. His goal IS to get your attention. Wrong notes and all. People look to Artists for unique viewpoints. You can’t be the same and stand out at the same time, so don’t even try copying someone else and getting anywhere. Tune your guitar however you want, sing in whatever strange voices you want, and say anything you want to anyone you want. It’s encouraged, if not necessary. Just be aware that the stakes are higher — bigger risk, bigger payoff. Some people will love you, others will hate you (and these two things always show up in the same place. It’s how you know it’s working.) The question for Artists is not “How Are You The Same?” It’s “How Are You Different?” It’s for people who can’t stop being themselves (and would you really want them to?). Examples of Artists would be Ani DiFranco, Henry Rollins, Les Claypool, Frank Zappa, Tom Waits.
Sometimes, you can be both at different times (or even at the same time). I’m not saying you’re automatically one or the other from birth. This is just a concept, not a rule. Don’t limit yourself.
But it can solve a lot of problems (and introduce new ones) to figure out which one you’re best at. Flipping the switch the other way might change your life.