Alum and veteran Gilfillan opens up
opportunities for military musicians © Sept. 18, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

To The Fallen Records gets its name from Sean Gilfillan’s tattoo, which commemorates seven of his comrades killed in action in Iraq.

photo courtesy of Sean GilfillanTo The Fallen Records gets its name from Sean Gilfillan’s tattoo, which commemorates seven of his comrades killed in action in Iraq.

Listen to the NLZ track, The Monster, and you’ll hear a heavy, catchy hip-hop beat, smart lyrics and the gravelly voice of a man who clearly has stories to share.

What you won’t hear is just how the East Orange, N.J.-based artist NLZ got to where he is today, sharing his music with the world and attracting attention from such hip-hop luminaries as Wu Tang Management.

NLZ, you see, is a veteran who happened to stumble across To the Fallen Records, the world’s only military record label. He was thrilled to find a new partner.

“It gives individuals the opportunities they may have thought they would never have,” says NLZ of the record label, also known as TTFR. “The way music has evolved, it has become very competitive, and this enables talented individuals to have a chance.”

TTFR was cofounded by Sean Gilfillan, a 2001 graduate of Norwich University who is himself a veteran of the Iraq War. Norwich is the country’s oldest private military college.

“Studying at Norwich laid the groundwork for starting this business,” says Gilfillan, who grew up in Rhode Island with a father and grandfather in the Army. He originally wanted to attend a nonmilitary school. “My father said, ‘I’ll pay for one year at Norwich, and then you can transfer,’” recalls Gilfillan. “But halfway through my first year, I realized I couldn’t leave Norwich—the ceremony, the tradition, the focus on discipline, leadership and camaraderie is found at no other school.”

Gilfillan says the discipline he learned as a four-year member of the Corps of Cadets gave him confidence to start a label that utilized the talents of active and retired servicemen and servicewomen. “They are probably the most disciplined artists out there,” he says. “Their emails, communications, performances, practices and training are all professional.”

And the skills he learned as a business management major laid the groundwork for every aspect of starting a business, he says. “Every class I took in business—accounting, macroeconomics, microeconomics—is relevant to what we’re doing now. Business management is the basic building block for any career.”

Gilfillan, who also graduated in 2009 from Norwich’s online Master of Arts in Diplomacy program, says TTFR’s artists are as creative and ambitious as any in the music world—they just happen to be veterans and active-duty soldiers.

“I felt that the soldier was overlooked within the music industry,” says Gilfillan, 30, who lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two children. “We had nonmilitary people making military music to celebrate the soldier, but no one was actually telling it like it is.”

So, when Gilfillan returned from Iraq in early 2006 [having earned the Bronze Star], he partnered with friend Sidney DeMello to create a record label. To the Fallen Records takes its name from the enormous tattoo on Gilfillan’s back, honoring seven of his comrades killed in action, and aims to become a worldwide megaphone for new voices in every genre, including rap, country, rock and folk music.

“Music is a portal through which you can enter the world of the storyteller,” says Gilfillan. “We have tons of storytellers—they just needed an audience and [we] wanted to find one for them.”

Gilfillan says the biggest challenge to getting started was money.

“Getting a loan, developing revenue stream in a business where physical CD profits are plummeting and overcoming the stereotype that military artists are in the military because they couldn't make it in the music industry” were all difficult obstacles to overcome, he says. But now, some TTFR artists have landed in the pages of Rolling Stone, The New York Times and on the CBS Evening News.

The label has plugged musician Zack Johnson of Jacksonville, Fla., into a life he could only dream about while serving overseas. Because of the operational tempo of today’s military, he says, there’s not enough time to meet the demands of traditional labels.

“In my case, being in a combat unit on a deployment cycle, it’s just impossible,” says Johnson, 28. “It’s such a blessing to have a label like TTFR that will work with us musicians who are so passionate about music and songwriting but are unable to just drop what we’re doing to tour and start a musical career, due to our unbreakable commitments to serve our country.”

Though he and DeMello started TTFR before earning his master’s degree, Gilfillan’s diplomatic skills clearly serve his new position. When asked to choose one artist or song that most exemplifies the spirit of TTFR, Gilfillan deflects the question.

“All of them offer the listener a small glimpse into the soul of our military,” he says. “Each track and each artist offers something different and vital to understanding.”