Take advantage of the Cactus Cafe

Eric Nikolaides

Live music defines Austin. Ever since the late 1960s, music has flourished here, and anybody who has ever taken a walk down Sixth Street can see how important live music is to the city’s cultural identity. In fact, I still remember the first time I came to Austin; the sights, sounds and smells of the music venues lining the streets downtown left an impression that I won’t ever forget. I felt like Austin was a true music town, which was a huge part of why I decided to come to school here. And the fact that the Cactus Cafe — an especially historic venue that helped launch the careers of The Dixie Chicks, Lyle Lovett, Nanci Griffith and many other venerable music legends — was on UT’s campus only furthered my conviction that I was choosing a school connected to Austin’s vibrant music scene. But the true relationship between UT and the local music is tenuous at best, despite the Cactus Cafe’s presence on campus. Every UT student has a lot to gain from taking advantage of the Cactus Cafe, and we can all do more to take part in Austin’s unique music scene.

With the impending arrival of SXSW — the annual music, film and technology mega-festival that descends upon Austin for 10 days — it is a better time than ever to examine the relationship between UT and Austin’s music scene. This relationship is definitely complicated, but it isn’t what I expected it to be when I first decided to come to school here. When I visited UT five years ago as a junior in high school, I was thrilled by the live music all around me, and especially by the fact that such an historic venue was in the Texas Union, right in the middle of UT’s campus. But soon after settling in to my dorm room, I started to realize that the UT campus was a world away from the vibrant music community I saw when I visited, even though the Cactus Cafe was right outside my bedroom window.

In reality, the idea of Austin as a music town plays only a very minor role in our identity as a student body. How many students on this campus appreciate how important the Cactus Cafe is?  How many don’t even know that it exists?  The University attempted to shutter the Cactus Cafe in 2010, in no small part because they simply didn’t think it mattered to the UT community and wasn’t worth the financial commitment, and this speaks volumes about how little appreciation we have for Austin’s live music tradition.

Granted, there are plenty of UT students who love live music and do everything they can to take advantage of what Austin has to offer, but this is likely nothing more than a product of the sheer size of UT’s student body. In fact, my impression after my freshman year was that UT’s only real engagement with the Austin music scene was during the Austin City Limits music festival each fall. We have such a deep, rich and varied music scene at our fingertips all year long, not just during that one weekend in September or October, and it is a shame that this isn’t a bigger part of who we are as a student body.

The Cactus Cafe is an amazing resource and a true musical treasure that is literally sitting right in our backyard, and it’s time that UT students start to appreciate its value. I recently spoke with Matt Munoz, the director of the Cactus Cafe, and he made it clear that attracting more UT students to shows is one of the venue’s main goals for the future. He told me that after a good show, he often hears UT students saying, “’Wow, I didn’t even know this was here.’  This is part of our longtime goal on campus, to get these younger kids on campus engaged.”  According to Munoz, the Cactus Cafe is always looking to book younger, UT-based bands and hosts a monthly open mic night focused on UT students. But our campus community is still disappointingly disengaged with the Cactus Cafe and Austin’s vibrant music scene in general.

In the upcoming months, the Cactus Cafe will host countless rising stars of the music world, as well as well-established acts from Austin and beyond. For instance, in the month of March alone you can see country and rock legends Tom Russell, Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely. These are musicians people cross the state to see live, and all you have to do is cross the street. But even if you can’t make it to a show, you can always just stop by for a beer; the Cactus Cafe is open all week as a common space for UT students to meet and relax. The fact is that UT is in a unique position to benefit from Austin’s one-of-a-kind music scene, and we are blessed to have a venue like the Cactus Cafe right on our campus. We should take advantage of it.

Nikolaides is a Spanish and government senior from Cincinnati, Ohio.