Iconic Austin Music Club Saved, But Not Everyone’s Happy

By Nancy Ramsey

Jul 8, 2010 4:42pm

ABC News on Campus reporter Miriam Smith blogs:
Austin, Texas, has an age-old slogan called “Keep Austin Weird,” which illustrates the city’s love for the quirky and resistance to conformity. The Cactus Café, a bar and music venue that’s been a landmark on the University of Texas campus since 1979, fits right into this eccentricity.  With its grubby "VIP Room,” oftentimes nameless singer/songwriters, and round-the-clock sale of alcohol on a college campus, the Cactus is an integral part of the city’s eclectic constellation of stores, shops, restaurants and food carts. So it’s no surprise that when the UT administration threatened to close down the local music venue in early 2010, thousands strongly protested.
Citing budget constraints, UT announced in January that the Cactus would close and be repurposed for student activities. But after months of heated debating, UT officials and Cactus Café supporters reached an alternative agreement in May. A shared management deal between KUT, a local radio station, and the Texas Union, the building where the Cactus Café is located, will ensue when school commences in the fall.
Some, like Wiley Koepp, founder of the Friends of the Cactus Café, were frustrated with what he saw as a lack of transparency surrounding the initial decision to close the cafe. “I don’t see myself as a militant protestor," he said, "just a guy who wants answers, but none have been supplied.”
Protestors were irritated that the Cactus was included in UT’s budget cuts, given its relatively small price tag. At $122,000 per year, the cost of keeping the Cactus seems miniscule set against the backdrop of UT’s goal of cutting $29 million from the budget.
The café’s so-called “partnership” with the news/jazz station could signify a variety of outcomes for the Cactus.
For one, the Cactus is going modern. Gone are the days when you show up early, cash in hand, hoping to get a seat at that night’s concert. KUT plans to allow credit card transactions, both online to book tickets in advance and at the door for last-minute customers.
Second, there will be about 200 bookings per year. Erin Geisler, public affairs representative of KUT Radio, says this is about the same as it has always been, but Koepp calls it a “dramatic drop.”
“There will be less shows,” Koepp said. “The Cactus used to only close when no one was playing, so there were shows most of the time, more than 300 days a year. Now, we don’t know what will happen the other 165 nights a year.”
Geisler said the general manager, who has not yet been chosen, will determine what happens at the Cactus on off nights. “Whoever the manager is… has to be an individual who has a vision,” she said.
The response to this solution has been mixed, Koepp said. “People have said, ‘Congratulations! We’re so proud of you! The Cactus has been saved!’ versus ‘We lost; it sucks.’ There are a bunch of unknowns. Everyone feels a little different.”

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