As a young boy, Graham Alexander would walk with his mother – or ride the Hi-Speed Line – past the abandoned buildings that comprised the once-flourishing RCA Victor complex along Camden’s waterfront. Each time the hulking brick structures came into view, he’d ask about them, but he never received a satisfactory answer beyond basic history: The buildings were where Victor, the world’s first recorded-music giant, had its headquarters for the first three decades of the 20th century and where RCA Victor did business until the early 1960s.
He would then ask why the buildings were empty, but an adequate explanation was never forthcoming.
Two decades later, Alexander, 26, a Camden native now living in Haddonfield, not only knows the story of RCA Victor and its forebear, the Victor Talking Machine Co., but he has taken it upon himself to revive the brand that was once a household name.
The 26-year-old singer-songwriter owns the rights to the names Victor Talking Machine Co., Victrola and His Master’s Voice. He also owns the likeness of Little Nipper (just the dog, not the famed corporate logo that also features an antique record player with a large sound bell). His parent company is called Radio Corporation of America, which was the original name of the still-active imprint, RCA.
By acquiring the properties, Alexander hopes to meet two goals: To have a way to distribute the music he and other area musicians make without having to navigate the often-frustrating avenues of the contemporary music industry and to educate SJ residents – especially children – about the region’s crucial place in music history.
Alexander’s game plan was first conjured in 2011, when he found himself vexed by the music industry’s reluctance to commit to artists who didn’t conform to contemporary popular tastes.
At the time, Alexander was appearing on Broadway as Paul McCartney in the hit Beatles tribute revue “Rain.” In December of that year, he independently released his first, self-titled CD. His song, “Biggest Fan,” made it to sixth place in the Top 100 list on Spotify, the Internet music-streaming service.
Buoyed by the response to the track, he headed to Los Angeles hoping to land a contract with a major record label.
“They kind of said, ‘Well, this is wonderful. We really love the product, but what if it sounded more like Maroon 5?’” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘No money got it to number six on the Spotify playlist; how is it that you don’t have the confidence to sign me?’”
More frustrated than defeated, he returned home realizing his best bet was to develop his own infrastructure to support his music career. The easy way would have been to simply create a new record label with a name he devised. But his childhood memories came into play.
“I had heard about these things called ‘brand auctions,’” he explains, adding that, through a series of sales and corporate takeovers, the names he eventually acquired were no longer of any value to the company that owned them – Sony Music.
“The first one we went after was Victrola,” he says. “I knew it was the name of a record player, but more importantly, I knew they were [manufactured] in Camden.”
“When I saw it was something I could possibly acquire as intellectual property, I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really, really cool.’ We could start a label based on this brand, and revive it and bring it back to the area. I just thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be a really cool thing to get His Master’s Voice?” I knew it was a label, and I knew that was a part of that property. Then I went after Victor Talking Machine Co., and then I went after Little Nipper.”
The goal, he continues, “is to establish what we’ve been calling a luxury music market. Almost every industry has formed a luxury market of some kind. The supermarket industry has Whole Foods. Ice cream has Ben & Jerry’s. The idea is that record labels will be important, especially if they are seen like an artisan label. We would really like to support musicians who are organic and authentic – no Auto-Tune, real orchestras. People who compose and perform their own music.”
That includes Alexander himself, whose CD, “Repeat Deceiver,” was recently released on the Victrola label as the company’s first offering Alexander’s acquisitions didn’t come cheaply. He won’t give a dollar amount, but admits that to finance the plan, he had to sell the 10,000-square-foot former manufacturing plant in Pennsauken where he lived and which housed a recording studio. But the rights to the names weren’t the only items in his figurative shopping cart.
Along with those rights came a treasure trove of some 10,000 recordings, many of which date back to the earliest days of publicly distributed recorded music.
Included in the collection are works by operatic titan Enrico Caruso and jazz giants Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. Among the individual items are a 1918 version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the direction of legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski, and a 1939 unreleased version of the song “When I Awake” by Tommy Dorsey and His Orchestra, with vocals by a young singer named Frank Sinatra.
The collection also includes a song by an ensemble called the Haydn Quartet from 1904, which Alexander believes contains the first recorded use of the phrase “rock ’n’ roll.”
It is this archive that figures in Alexander’s desire to educate local residents about SJ’s rich musical heritage. Currently, the recordings – which are in the process of being cataloged – are stored at The Vault, yet another part of Alexander’s burgeoning music empire.
Located in a former bank building in Berlin, The Vault is Alexander’s headquarters. In addition to housing his office and the vintage recordings, there are displays dedicated to SJ’s music history. Among the artifacts are several vintage record players including an 1895 Berliner (named not for The Vault’s location, but for its creator, Emil Berliner of Philadelphia). It was the first device upon which flat discs – rather than wax cylinders – were played. Alexander estimates it is one of perhaps 30 that were manufactured.
The Vault is also a concert venue that showcases local artists. Among those who have already performed are Alexander’s father, Fran Smith Jr., a singer-songwriter and longtime bassist for Philadelphia’s The Hooters.
VIP tickets to shows include a guided tour that features a look at how Alexander and his crew actually create vinyl discs with a lathe, as well as a catered BYOB dinner. The Vault is also where a line of Victrola record players are manufactured (they sell for $150 each).
Alexander hopes The Vault, which has been open since October, will be an important resource for those researching local music history. That aspect of Alexander’s strategy is particularly exciting to Chris Perks, board president of the Camden County Historical Society.
“On a scale of one to 10, I’d say it’s a nine,” says Perks when asked about Alexander’s educational component. “Graham is working with us on programming for 2016 that will draw attention to the Victor Talking Machine legacy.” He added the lessons will be geared toward fourth- and fifth-graders’ local history studies.
If there is a downside to Alexander’s mission, it’s that he is now as much a businessman as he is a musician.
“I really hate it,” he says. “I definitely regret not having enough time to [make music]. But at the same time, you’re in music. I think the bottom line is I have so many friends who are great musicians, who will never see the light of day in terms of [their music]. But if you promise a certain quality, people will be interested. The idea of being able to assist with that – and also help myself – to me, that’s pretty cool.”