You could say that Graham Alexander, who had a successful run on Broadway playing Paul McCartney in the Beatles tribute shows “Rain” and “Let it Be,” is on his own Got Back Tour these days.
The musician-turned-music entrepreneur is surprised that his South Jersey music venue the Victor Vault is still cranking out live shows. And even more amazing is that his dream to create a profitable artisanal music company out of the ashes of RCA Victor, the oldest and perhaps most famous brand in the music industry, remains viable.
Just a couple of years ago, it looked like the COVID lockdown was going to destroy everything Alexander had spent a grueling decade building as CEO of Victor Musical Industries, Inc., in Camden.
“Right around June of 2020, I just remember sitting at my desk, flabbergasted, thinking’ How are we going to push through?’ ” he said.
“Our manufacturing was down. Our shows were nonexistent. Our musicians were out of work. We had to close the Victor Vault and we had to close the recording studios. After all I had done to build a stable platform for music and musicians, I never imagined the one thing that could take it all down: a global pandemic.”
But “by some miracle,” the Victor Vault, part intimate concert space and part Victor music museum, survived.
So, too, has Alexander’s intent to produce Victor-like products, primarily turntables. Taking advantage of the resurgence in vinyl records, he has kept alive his dream to return recording machine and disc production to Camden, the place where it was born.
“Camden is the Hershey of music and entertainment, and I think there’s a real opportunity here,” said Alexander, who lives in the city’s original Victor building, which was constructed for The Talking Machine Company in 1916 and converted into luxury apartments and retail space in 2004.
“Way, way, back, 120 years ago, Victor came up with the record player and the disc record and they said, ‘How are we going to get people to buy this thing?’ And some smart guy said, ‘You know what we should do? Let’s get musicians and make recordings and then people will want to buy the machine on which the music is played.’ And that, really, is the birth of the modern music industry: content, software and hardware.”
Alexander has modern-day projects for all three facets of the old Victor business model.
This “great scheme,” as he calls it, started while he was doing the Beatles gigs on Broadway and heard that the Victrola brand was on the auction block. Initially Alexander thought buying the rights to the storied Victor label would be a good way to kickstart his own record company. But it quickly turned into much more than that.
“When GE bought up RCA Victor in 1985, it started Victor on the path of being absolutely irrelevant,” he said. “What had been the largest brand and name in music basically fell into complete irrelevance, along with all that it had built. So we decided: Let’s make it our mission to unite the portfolio and bring this back to Camden.”
After an arduous legal process, Alexander was successful in acquiring not just Victrola, but also the rights to “The Victor Talking Machine Co.,” “His Master’s Voice” and “Little Nipper,” the canine and gramophone image associated with the RCA Victor brand.
He then set up headquarters in Camden, where the invention of sound recording got its start in 1901, shortly after the invention of the gramophone and vinyl disc record by Emile Berliner.
With the purchase of the various company names, Alexander also took possession of more than 10,000 masters, tests, acetates and shellacs of everything from Frank Sinatra to the earliest recordings of sound.
“We have a master of the first sound of war ever recorded. It’s a mustard gas attack,” said Alexander. “You can hear missiles coming down. It was recorded in France in 1917 during World War I.”
Other masters are from the earliest days of jazz, popular music and opera, including artists as disparate as Lead Belly, Louis Armstrong, Enrico Caruso and Rachmaninoff. So far, only about 20 percent of the material has been catalogued — another project that has had to get in line for attention in a post-pandemic world in which financial resources have been reduced.
Victor Musical Industries is not the corporate giant that was once RCA Victor. “We see ourselves as something like a craft brewery,” said Alexander. “We think there is a market for music that is specifically made by musicians as opposed to producers.”
He said the plight of the “broke musician” is always at the center of his mind: the question of how to help musicians not just thrive musically, but get paid a fair wage. This is where the Victor Vault enters center stage.
Housed in a former bank building in Berlin Borough, Camden County, it employs 80 local musicians who rotate through the shows of mostly legacy music, with a hard lean into The Beatles.
“Sure, people will say, ‘Well, it’s a lot of ’60s, ’70s and ’80s music.’ Uh, yeah! Because we firmly believe that is the golden era of music,” said Alexander. “If you can give me a 2000s show that could sell consistently that isn’t Taylor Swift, then okay. But there’s a reason why this music is still top-selling. It’s because it’s timeless.”
This may sound strange coming from a 34-year-old musician. But Alexander said he always has been a bit of an old soul.
“I have a reverence for the mindset that if we don’t document our past, don’t keep it in our mind and hearts, we’re going to lose so much character,” he said.
Alexander calls the Vault “the little engine that could” and thinks of it not as a club but as a “music experience,” like a playhouse. Shows can run anywhere from two nights to two weeks.
“We want to create shows that are more than just a band going onstage and playing some songs,” he said. “We want to give you the biggest little show that we possibly can.”
Lest we forget, the final piece of Alexander’s plan for a Victor reboot was completed recently when Nipper’s remains were interred in a memorial garden on the Vault grounds, accompanied by a giant Nipper statue.
The famous Nipper logo of a dog listening to a gramophone was created from the 1899 painting “His Master’s Voice” by English artist Francis Barraud. It was then acquired by Victor’s founder Emile Berliner, turned into a logo and marketed as “The Hound Who Found Sound.”
“Nipper died in 1895 and was buried in 1898 under a mulberry bush in Kingston Upon Thames in basically what is now a parking lot,” said Alexander, who noted that the remains were obtained from a descendant of the Barraud family and that its age and breed have been certified by a forensic veterinary specialist.
“We always had the idea to put in a memorial garden,” said Alexander. “You walk around the Camden waterfront and you’d hardly know that music was born here.”
He noted that over the years, Victor employed more than 200,000 people. “There’s not a statue, nothing at all, to honor these amazing humans who dedicated their lives to building the world we have today. There would be no NBC, no Comcast. There would be nothing if it wasn’t for these workers. And Nipper is sort of Employee No. 1.”
The bottom line, Alexander said, is that the Victor legacy is something that should be celebrated. And even if he can’t bring the brand back to the glory days of recorded sound, it’s satisfying to just be a “good steward” of the music industry.
“I have absolutely no interest in obscene profits. All I want is to build stability and reasonable growth for musicians’ music and provide a really good experience for music fans. And if that gets me paid at some point, I’m fine with that. At the same time, I’m happy subsisting in service to music and in service to the company.”
Upcoming shows at the Victor Vault include live re-creations of The Beatles’ “White Album” and “Abbey Road,” as well as music of The Doors, and a Motown revue. For details and tickets, visit victorrecords.com/thevault.
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