Brian Alvey, owner of the Vollrath Tavern, shuttered the doors last week after four years of operation as a music venue. Rest assured, the spirit of the Vollrath is not gone for good; Alvey is regrouping and planning to open another venue in the extremely near future.
Fans of the historic venue have expressed shock at the seemingly rapid closing of the tavern. Alvey acknowledges that the announcement of the closure did seem sudden and expresses lament that his plans did not work out as expected. For many months, Alvey had been in negotiations to move into another venue and continue the musical performances he had booked for the Vollrath's stage. However, in the final stages of negotiations, the second location fell through and the Vollrath had already been sold.
This leaves Alvey temporarily stalled. He can continue to search for another location, but in the meantime must reschedule all of the booked shows that were supposed to happen at his original club. However, he believes that the loyalty he curated at the Vollrath will buoy him until he can figure out where he's going next.
Alvey spoke candidly with NUVO about the venue's closure, Indy's music scene, and supporting his fellow venue proprietors.
NUVO: How did the Vollrath fit in the community?
Alvey: If you want loyalty, you have to give loyalty. It is like love; it only exists in reciprocation. What we did at the Vollrath was commit to taking care of people. This is the place you're supposed to go and feel like we looked out for you. You have no idea how many religiously regular locals we had. We knew we have to make this a reciprocal relationship if we were going to make it.
NUVO: How is Indy changing as a musical destination?
Alvey: There are bands driving right through Indy to play shows in Chicago and Louisville; we are the 11th largest market in the United States and we are not even considered a third-tier music [destination]. However, we need to realize how to compete. We are the absolute best big small town in America. Indy is growing leaps and bounds to be on the same page [as these cities].
NUVO: Tell us about the importance of supporting local industry to you.
Alvey: We have a heavy focus on local. All we ever put on draft was Indiana craft beer. If it wasn't brewed in Indiana, it wasn't on draft.
NUVO: You had a policy of only allowing original material to be played at the 'Rath. Why did you make that decision?
Alvey: [ASCAP, BMI, SESAC, the performing rights organizations] have big money, so they will sue you if they catch you [playing covers]. They hide under the guile of protecting artists, but I have yet to meet one person who has made money off of royalties. Once LP sales went in the toilet, they had to make money somehow; now they are single-handedly putting music venues out. Their first conversation with you is a threat. So I decided not to deal with any of them, and enforced an original music policy.
NUVO: Describe your relationship with other venues in town.
Alvey: I always support other venues like The Melody [Inn], The Mousetrap, Radio Radio, etc. How can the music scene ask for more than [owners] putting their livelihood on the line to support music? There are a lot of con artists in the bar business and a lot of con artists in the music industry. Put them together, and I have met some of the most disgusting scumbags in this business. But, for every bad person, I have met twenty people that I hope I will call friends for the rest of my life. I am better just being around them for the last four years. A music scene is not made of one venue. We have these incredible venues, so we didn't try and copy anybody. We tried to find what would make us fit so we could compete with them, not against them.
NUVO: Describe the history of the Vollrath.
Alvey: This place was the most popular place in Indy in the '20s, '30s, '40s, '50s, and into the '60s, but when they put the interstate in and dug out Madison Street, it cut off this neighborhood. Because it was cut off, it survived, it just deteriorated. I felt like a paleontologist that found a mastodon in perfect form in a bog. I just had to recreate it, and at the end it was a popular, packed, super-positive type of place. We brought it full circle before we closed it. It has been in operation since it opened in 1926.
NUVO: Many have heard stories about ghosts at the Vollrath. Can you elaborate?
Alvey: If it is haunted, then the ghosts aren't mad at me. We have had so many paranormal people in here, and they say, 'Yes, there is paranormal activity here, but it is all positive.' And I think, yeah, because this is where some people spent the best days of their lives. If Louis Vollrath [the original owner] is still here, he is happy that I cleaned it up.
NUVO: You describe yourself and your operation as anti-VIP.
Alvey: You know, people downtown are spending 200 dollars on bottle service to try and impress someone and hide that they are broke. More power to [downtown clubs] for being able to cash in on that. But we are anti-VIP. We had the number-one [Miller] High Life sales in town, and were in the top five sales of PBR. We used to joke that VIP stands for “Vollrath Isn't Pretentious.”
NUVO: You described closing as “an agonizing choice.” What was your thought process?
Alvey: We didn't close because we were hurting. Everyone I owe is being paid, everything I need to pay is being paid. I am not jilting anyone. I am closing the right way, and taking care of the guy who is going to inherit this space. I am not a bar owner, I am a business owner, and I am a business owner that happens to really dig live music. I thought about this for many months. It was hard, it was tough.
NUVO: What else is in the works for you as you're trying to open another music venue?
Alvey: I'm working on opening a winery. We're going to import only Italian varietal grapes, have a tasting room in the back and sell our wines under a farmer's wine license. We're going to do it right. The front of the winery will be an Italian market, a real old-school type of market with a large tasting room in the back. This has been in the works for a long time; it had no bearing on the closing of the Vollrath. Totally separate venture.
NUVO: What's the future of the Vollrath and the plans for your new venue?
Alvey: The liquor license was sold to a downtown catering firm and the actual building is going to be made into a catering facility (Editor's note: the two catering operations are separate). I will incorporate the name (Vollrath) in some fashion [in the new place], but I don't want to call it “The Vollrath” because the Vollrath Tavern name needs to stay here. I am making some change [from the sale] and opening another place to do the same thing: support local music, have cheap drinks and develop a base of regulars.
NUVO: In closing?
Alvey: It is amazing how wonderful things turn out if you go into things with good intentions. Things, like this place closing, happen for a reason. It's nobody's fault. Being involved in this music scene has been an absolute wonderful experience in my life. Once you've been involved it is addictive. We will be back. But for now, everybody needs to support the other venues. They are not my competition, they are my friends. Support the music venues, because when you support the venues, you are supporting the artist. It is a wonderful circle. When in doubt, grab a NUVO, pick a show and go see it. Then Indy can grow, as it has. We are on the map now.
Other reactions to the closing of the Vollrath
David Brown of The Melody Inn
"I would agree that the venues who support underground, original musicians, such as Birdy's, Radio Radio, Locals Only, formerly the Vollrath, and of course The Melody, etc., care about the scene as a whole, and consider these venues as friendly competitors. I don't think any of these venues would purposely screw another, and I know first hand that if one reached out to another for assistance, it would be given without hesitation. Although we still don't have quite enough fan support, especially considering the population of this city, we do have a decent music scene, with all of those venues playing a role to help it thrive. Although there are a lot of talented musicians in this town, many of whom appreciate the opportunities these venues provide, sadly there are some who take us for granted. The Vollrath will be missed. I hope this is a wake-up call for the musicians and fans to make it a point to support these cool venues. The next one down could be The Melody. You know the saying: you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone."
David “Tufty” Clough from Radio Radio
"I think all music venues that try to support the arts are a great thing for the city. I have always wanted more music venues closer together so we can make an area that is all about music and art. Fountain Square is the closest thing as far as I can see."