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Combat Vet Gives Voice to Military Musicians

By Sara Moore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2009 – Music is considered by many to be a universal language, and for some military veterans, it is the only language that allows them to describe their experiences in combat and their struggles afterward.

Military musicians normally would struggle to have their voices heard in the cutthroat music industry, but a fellow veteran has given them a chance to get their music released and in the hands of fans worldwide.

Army Capt. Sean Gilfillan, a reservist who served four years on active duty and a tour in Iraq, started To the Fallen Records in 2006. The record label, which takes its name from a tattoo Gilfillan bears to commemorate fellow servicemembers who died in combat, signs only musicians who are military members or veterans.

Gilfillan said he was inspired to start To the Fallen by the many musicians he met during his time on active duty, and the powerful message their songs had. After he left active duty, he met his wife, and seeing how interested she was in the music made him realize it might appeal to a larger audience, he said.

“It’s so emotional,” he said. “It’s so personal, and we don’t see this stuff on TV or on the radio. Unfortunately, we only hear about the attacks and how many people are killed and when bad things happen.”

The couple started the record label to bring music from servicemembers to the civilian world and to bridge the gap of understanding about military life and combat.

“If civilians hear military music, they might understand. They’re never going to be in those shoes, but they can at least empathize and understand what three tours really does to someone, to someone’s family,” Gilfillan said. “Not only that, but war … what happens during war, during patrols, and what it takes to actually psyche yourself up to go out to war, and the struggles when you come home with [post-traumatic stress disorder], with relationships, and how every normal everyday struggle is made more difficult by you being away for so long.”

Since its inception, the record label has grown into a platform to showcase all military musicians, even those not talking about combat. But the bottom line, Gilfillan said, has always been quality music.

“If the music isn’t good, if the quality isn’t there, then we won’t feature you,” he said. “It has to be radio quality.”

In its first year, the record label saw almost instant success, being featured in Rolling Stone magazine and the New York Times and releasing its first three CDs, which were compilations of hip hop, country and rock music. Today, the label has a database of about 2,000 artists and 200 producers it works with, Gilfillan said. It also maintains a database of recording studios that offer discounts to military members.

Establishing a credible record label is very important to Gilfillan, he said, because he wants to give the military musicians a chance to establish a fan base, which is key to any musician’s success. He said he follows the military’s philosophy that no one person is more important than the organization.

“To the Fallen will always exist,” he said. “The artists might change, I might change, but the label will always exist. So, hopefully the name builds enough prestige where any artist being linked to the name will get a leg up.”

To the Fallen sells its music online at its Web site and that of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, and physically, at Green Beans Coffee, which has stores in Iraq and Afghanistan. The label is working on several new projects, including a reality TV show based on military musicians.

Another new project Gilfillan and his wife are working on is in creating a nonprofit group that will use musical therapy to help rehabilitate wounded veterans. The group is in early development, but the vision is a place where wounded veterans can learn about the entire musical process, including recording and production, and use it as therapy, Gilfillan said.

“We would kind of just recruit and train our own military musicians and give them a trade and, in return, we would do musical therapy for anyone who needs it,” he said. “I really believe in musical therapy as a viable way to recuperate.”

To the Fallen already donates part of its profits to charities that benefit wounded troops, and once the nonprofit organization is established, money would go into that also, Gilfillan said. But more important than the money, he said, is giving military musicians an opportunity to get their music out there and letting the world hear the quality of music servicemembers create.

“These are not hokey artists,” he said. “This is real music.”

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