Encore for the Cactus Cafe

Last year’s near-closure of the Cactus Café brought the University the kind of publicity it didn’t need. What did UT learn from the experience, and how is the little music venue with the big impact doing today?

At the beginning of 2010, a legislative off-year in which The University of Texas needed to build goodwill before one of the most brutal budgetary sessions in state history, UT made an announcement. The flagship university in the Live Music Capital of the World would close its beloved campus music venue, the Cactus Cafe.

Physically, the Cactus was tiny. It had room for just 150 on a campus of nearly 50,000. Historically, it was not one of UT’s oldest institutions. It was 30 years old at a school founded a century before the cafe ever opened within the Texas Union. Musically, it hosted hauntingly beautiful acoustic singer-songwriters. But in an age of hip-hop and electronica, they didn’t necessarily represent the predominant genres of UT’s current students.

Yet the Cactus’ impact, as UT was soon reminded, was outsized. The clamor that followed the announcement rattled the shades and upset alumni as far away as New York, Australia, and Japan. National news outlets ran stories. Within days, 25,000 people registered their opposition to the decision, holding rallies, founding organizations, and raising thousands.

For the University, the next few months played out a community relations meltdown. Thoroughly planning out an announcement, involving public-relations professionals early, testing for public opinion and depth of reaction, and staying on message were among the PR fundamentals the University didn’t fully execute.

Still, UT president Bill Powers says the outcome was worth the controversy. He dismisses the idea that different execution could have diminished the public reaction and negative news coverage. “There needed to be a change,” Powers says. “There has been a change, and it’s worked out well. It was bumpy. But I don’t think if we’d used some magic words that would have gone away.”

To examine the episode as a pure public relations case study would be too dry for the near-religious overtones the Cactus’ proposed closure took on. Because for the music lovers who faithfully attended shows and open-mic nights at the Cactus—and even those who just felt good knowing it was there—the cafe offered a spiritual experience, a center of worship for the songwriting craft. In one angry, passionate public meeting, Powers was likened to Pontius Pilate.

There would be a savior in this story: another campus entity rode to the rescue as the negative publicity dragged on. KUT, the University’s public radio station, voiced interest in managing a live music venue. Within a few months, Student Affairs vice president Juan González, KUT director Stewart Vanderwilt, and other officials came to an agreement. Its longtime manager, Griff Luneburg, would be replaced, but a changed Cactus Cafe would go on.

“It was like a moving train we jumped on. It didn’t stop,” Vanderwilt says. “And there’s not really a model for this. KUT’s unique, and the Cactus is too. But we just clearly saw it as this kind of cherished and historic venue, and also an extension of our mission of creating unique experiences that actually bring people together.”

How has the Cactus Cafe done in its year under KUT control? What has the University learned from the controversy? And with the Union and the Cactus about to close for four months while sprinklers are installed, what happens next?


FUNNILY ENOUGH, the Cactus had originally solved another public relations issue for the University. The space the cafe occupied had been a no-frills Union eatery called the Chuck Wagon, with stainless-steel barstools and a U-shaped counter. As protests and counterculture overtook the campus in the ’60s and ’70s, the Chuck Wagon became a hangout, and by no means limited to students.

In one infamous scene in 1969, helmeted officers barged in, fi ring tear gas, shattering glass, and making arrests as they removed an 11-year-old girl; she was, they said, a runaway. Controversy flared. “The Chuck Wagon has meant chaos, confusion, and confrontation a la Columbia or Berkeley in miniature,” the Daily Texan concluded as it reviewed the incident a year afterward.

In the early ’70s, the former Chuck Wagon became a snack bar called Potpourri. Then, after the Union was renovated in 1979, the Cactus Cafe opened in the space, allowing musicians an indoor space to continue the jamming tradition that had flourished out on the Union’s patio.

A couple years later, the man people described as a music lover with a bad case of bedhead, Griff Luneburg, BA ’83, was hired behind the Cactus’ bar. In 1982, he would take over the booking and launch a Songwriter’s Showcase (kicked off by Nanci Griffith, who went on to fame). Luneburg would preside over the Cactus for the next nearly three decades, deciding who should play and who wasn’t yet ready.

And musically sacred decisions did he make. Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, and Robert Earl Keen were among the singer-songwriters whose careers the Cactus nurtured. Musicians liked Luneburg, and they loved the way they sounded on the small stage inside the listening room with world-class acoustics. The crowd was hushed, the bartenders so respectful they’d shake margaritas in the next room to avoid disturbing a song.

There were signs that students weren’t the primary audience. In 1991, Luneburg said publicly that unlike at most Austin bars, revenues weren’t much different when students were away for the summer than when they were back on campus. The Cactus’ June sales were higher than its September ones. “We cater to people of all walks of life,” Luneburg said. “We have been able to find a formula that works with or without students.”

Luneburg brought in different musical genres to be sure—from Celtic to bluegrass to jazz. Even rock acts were welcomed; the only catch was that they’d be booked in the club’s usual, more acoustic format. All of that led to an atmosphere more dignified than youthful, its location in a student union notwithstanding.

On the cafe’s 25th anniversary, in 2004, the Austin American-Statesman wrote a stirring tribute. The piece concluded with reflections on the venue’s nature. “The Cactus,” the paper said, “is the probability, on most nights, that there will be more gray hair in the audience than pierced body parts.”


IN FLUSH TIMES, there seems room for every interest on a mammoth campus. As money dries up, winners and losers emerge. And so, against a backdrop of budget cuts, the Texas Union in December 2009 quietly began considering closing the Cactus Cafe, which was losing somewhere around $60,000 a year.

Only through dozens of public-records requests from media outlets and private citizens were any discussions about closure later discovered. No advance public forums about a possible closure were held—something Juan González now says he regrets. The announcement came without warning on Jan. 29, 2010.

The Union’s board met that morning, but the group didn’t mention the Cactus Cafe in open session. Later that day, after a closed executive session, it was announced that the Union’s Informal Classes and Cactus Cafe would shut down. González and Texas Unions executive director Andy Smith cited cost savings.

Leaders seemed aware that at least some would lament the closures. There were community members who had enjoyed both entities, Smith acknowledged late that Friday afternoon. “To those people, this will be like any other thing that stops happening in Austin,” he said. “That’s regretful.”

The Cactus news ricocheted through the Austin community, especially its ample music-loving segment. Wiley Koepp, BA ’95, Life Member, heard right away. A software designer at UT’s Division of Continuing Education, he wondered who would start the inevitable Facebook page against the closing. Koepp had a short history of campus activism. As a UT student in the ’90s,he had once run for Student Government on a publicity-getting “Save the Lobsters” campaign (if he lost, he vowed to eat a tankful of lobsters in front of the cameras, and he did).

Despite that experience as a media darling, Koepp seemed too laid-back to start a revolution. And with a job at UT and two kids to provide for, he didn’t intend to launch one this time. But as a musician, he had played the Cactus with his disco rock band in 2009 and been awed by the experience. He decided to go ahead with that Facebook page.

Everyone from lawyers to techies contacted him with offers to donate or help. Save the Cactus Cafe’s nearly 25,000-strong social media presence soon spawned a formal nonprofit. Supporters worked diligently for months, building a website, talking to media, and raising some $13,000.

Students spoke up too, starting their own organization, Student Friends of the Cactus Cafe. Hayley Gillespie, then an ecology grad student, was among the most vocal. Gillespie still prickles when she hears people say that students hadn’t been patronizing the Cactus—she’d seen them at shows, she says.

“Certainly it wasn’t just students,” she says. “But we as Student Friends of the Cactus argued that a lot more could be done to reach out to students. It’s a space where social interactions take place between all different kinds of people—alumni, professors, students, your TA—all together. I can’t think of another place besides football games or sporting events where that happens.”

Fellow Student Friends of the Cactus cofounder Matt Portillo, now a senior, wondered also why marketing professors and business students couldn’t have been enlisted to help make the venue profi table. “We have some of the brightest minds in the entire world here,” he says. “If we’d put people on that, there was the brainpower to develop a solution. With not much investment, we could have turned that cafe around pretty quick.”

The various University officials who were called on to explain the closure decision were hardly in lockstep with the messages they presented publicly. Financial losses were cited in the initial announcement. Then, after supporters offered in a town hall meeting to raise the money to offset the $60,000-plus annual loss, Powers said the issue at heart was about greater student involvement. The shifting rationales fostered distrust among community members.

Even teenagers and 20-somethings learn about public relations these days, and Portillo, then a Student Government rep, felt discouraged to see his beloved University miss the mark on the kind of PR techniques he’d been taught. “For any person in a managerial position, it’s hard to take risks and put yourself out there and try to develop solutions that you might not have thought of. But it’s well worth the investment of effort,” he says. “If people had seen UT trying to do that from the get-go, there would have been a lot less animosity. One of the lessons learned is that these decisions can’t just fl y out of left fi eld and hit us. Deliberative process and participation from multiple parties is the best thing.”

The spring wore on, and the coverage and criticism over the Cactus didn’t let up. Meanwhile, over at KUT, the idea of getting involved in the Cactus “did pop into the heads of pretty much everybody at KUT pretty much simultaneously,” Stewart Vanderwilt says. But as part of a University entity, he told employees it wouldn’t be appropriate to get involved in controversy over what looked like a done deal.

Two agonizing months later, as it became clear that administrators were looking for alternatives, KUT raised its hand. Vanderwilt contacted González and asked whether his station could help preserve the Cactus. KUT could save a historic venue and manage bookings professionally, he said, yet involve more students in the enterprise. For the University’s community relations— or at least public perception—it was a life ring.

González, an NPR listener but not an acoustic music fan, concedes he had never thought of KUT. This fall, as he transitions from a VP position back to a teaching one, he calls that “my weakness,” adding, “Even if you work on campus, you may not be aware of the assets across the street.I had never connected the dots between a Cactus and a KUT.”


FOR HAVING GONE THROUGH a near-death experience in the past year or two, the Cactus Cafe hardly looks to have aged a bit. Its burgundy curtain, exposed beams, and snug little stage are still in place. The dark-wood bar still serves standard cocktails, beer, and the same old coffee—no newfangled espresso or lattes in the watering hole adjacent to Starbucks.

In less physical ways, however, some things have changed. Rather than cutting costs, KUT has already invested more than $100,000 in improvements to the Cactus. Most of the upgrades have been to sound equipment and the electrical system. The bar continues to be operated by the Texas Unions and their staff, with revenues shared with KUT. And although the station hasn’t sunk much money into bar-area improvements yet, it is setting aside several thousand every year into a capital improvement fund that will be available when those kinds of upgrades are required.

The biggest change has surely been in personnel.

The Cactus manager, once a lone ranger at the Texas Union, now has the support and backing of the KUT staff and an office at the station. The Cactus’ public relations are now expertly handled, the venue’s every event and accomplishment tracked. Former manager Griff Luneburg spent months quietly helping his replacement, Matt Muñoz, transition into the job. He remains elusive, rarely speaking out about the Cactus (and shying away from an interview for this story). But on the subject of the cafe’s change in leadership, he was never anything less than classy.

After Muñoz’ hiring was announced, Luneburg assured fans on the Save the Cactus Cafe Facebook page that he was doing all right. He’d gotten the chance, he said, to live his dream. And he called for their support of the new manager.

“Ya certainly can’t blame a guy for applying for a job and getting hired for a great gig,” he wrote. “Matt’s a fine fellow and longtime Cactus fan who ‘gets it.’ He’s a musician himself who seems destined to carry on the Cactus tradition. So let’s give Matt all the support which you’ve shown me.”

KUT was clear about wanting a manager who could extend the Cactus experience “beyond the room.” The station expected not just high-quality shows in front of 150, but also high-quality broadcasts to be heard by thousands. Muñoz was less a live-venue veteran than a record-industry player, having worked for such labels as Arista in Austin and Warner Bros. and Univeral in Los Angeles.

As a musician who enjoyed beloved local clubs like Liberty Lunch in decades past, Muñoz appreciated the old Austin. But to him, the need to acknowledge change in the Cactus reflects the need to accept the growth and change in the major metropolitan area around it, too. People want to think it’s a “sleepy college town with the potential of a big city,” he says, “but in reality it’s a big city surrounding a huge university.”

And so Muñoz has tried to gently nudge the café into a more digital age. The Cactus’ page has around 2,000 Facebook likes, far fewer than the Save the Cactus Cafe page’s 25,000. He’s working on a website this fall. And he has introduced online ticketing and begun taking credit cards, replacing a cash-only system of door sales that had would-be audience members lining up an hour or more before a show.

While they’re a top-tier professional music and media outlet, Muñoz and KUT have sought to involve students, starting in modest ways. They created a formal internship program with Butler School of Music, allowing an intern, Wes Stafford, to earn class credit for the sound engineering program. And any musician who wants to play during the Cactus’ beloved open-mic night must now show a current UT student ID.

Meanwhile, the musical selection has been expanded. The Jeff Loftin Trio, for instance, has played its jazz more than once, even expanding to a Brazilian bossa nova tribute in August. But old faithfuls like Robert Earl Keen have returned, too. Keen played his Texas country in a benefit concert for the Cactus the night after Loftin’s bossa nova show.

“The singer-songwriter-folk tradition works well there, so that’ll always be a part of it, but we’re going to think as far out of that box as possible too,” Vanderwilt says. “If you could hear classical music or jazz in a listening room, that would be really cool too. At KUT, we play the music that resonates in Austin, regardless of the genre.”

With clearer audio equipment, the goal has been to produce more radio broadcasts from the Cactus. And in this year, such broadcasts made a big splash when Austin rockers Okkervil River debuted their new album live in the Cactus and on NPR.org. The global webcast was watched by up to 30,000 fans. Plans for a regular radio program recorded at the Cactus and a KUT song of the day related to the venue are in the works.

All the plans sound peachy, but there is a hitch. In December, the Texas Union will close for a full four months so a sprinkler system can be added. It would be easy to lose visibility, enthusiasm, money, and momentum during a long shutdown. But those most invested in the Cactus, especially Vanderwilt and Muñoz, profess optimism about what they can accomplish during the spring-semester closure.

“We know it’s a challenge,” Vanderwilt says. “But that’s also why we’re working on a radio program, we’re in discussions with Longhorn Network about a video program, and we’ll launch a new website this fall with content as well as ticketing. All of those things we’d be doing anyway, but those things I think will help keep the Cactus in front of people during that time.”

Still, given the surprise announcement last time, some worry that the Cactus could quietly keep its doors shut even after the Union reopens. KUT is still losing money on it, after all (although the station expects to break even on the venue in its third year of management). But Powers says the University remains committed to the reformatted venue. “I can assure you there aren’t plans for the Cactus come to a quiet end,” he says. “The Cactus Cafe under the direction of KUT is a stable, long-term enterprise.”

Gillespie says Cactus supporters will still protect their beloved venue. “Don’t mess with the Cactus,” she says. “And don’t underestimate the ability of students on this campus to organize for what they believe in. We’re still watching and still passionate about it.”


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