Faster Than Sound: KUT/KUTX Will No Longer Manage the Cactus Cafe

University station terminates "disheartening" negotiations and Spider House Ballroom changes ownership.

David Garza and Scrappy Jud Newcomb perform at a Cactus Cafe Rally on UT's West Mall on February 26, 2010 (Photo by John Anderson)

Ending a decadelong run, KUT/KUTX will no longer manage the Cactus Cafe. As reported by the Chronicle this month, the 10-year management agreement between the University Unions division at UT and the radio station expired last fall. The previous agreement, a memorandum of understanding, extended temporarily as discussions continued into 2021.

Last week, sources close to the issue confirmed that KUT/KUTX terminated its side of negotiations. The station will thus end employment of longtime Cactus Manager Matt Muñoz and Assistant Manager Amy Chambless, both currently furloughed with reduced salaries. In all likelihood, the University Unions would regain management of the historic bar and music venue, opened in 1979. In comment to the Chronicle earlier this month, a UT spokesperson said the school plans to maintain the space for musical use “in keeping with the venue’s rich history.”

KUT/KUTX and Cactus leadership declined to comment, directing questions to university media relations. After the Chronicle broke the news last Friday, spokesperson J.B. Bird provided the latest statement:

"The university is grateful that KUT managed the Cactus Cafe for 10 years, helping support the Austin music scene. Financial considerations led the station to decline to renew the agreement, but UT-Austin remains committed to continuing musical programming at the Cactus for years to come while creating a sustainable path forward for its operations."

Bird added that new management details are "still being worked out."

Those involved described negotiations as "disheartening" and said the school "played hardball." In a proposal presented to the University Unions Board of Directors in April, KUT/KUTX cited annual subsidies of $120,000 to support the Cactus. In order to increase revenues, the station requested profits from bar sales, which it did not receive under the 10-year agreement, as well as increased use of larger university spaces like the Union Ballroom and Hogg Auditorium.

According to documents obtained by an open records request, the venue cost the station $1.21 million over the decade of management. On April 4, KUT/KUTX General Manager Debbie Hiott emailed Moody College of Communication Dean Jay Bernhardt outlining the station's requirements to reach a new memorandum of understanding:

"As we come off of pandemic-related revenue losses of more than $2 million in underwriting and events for our radio stations, and we face a sense of urgency to fill in local news needs in a growing community, we can no longer sustain an annual subsidy of the Cactus Cafe at the expense of our members and listeners.

"In order to achieve a break-even position (we're not trying to make money off the Cactus), we have some needs to achieve financial sustainability with an extension of our Memorandum of Understanding. Otherwise, we will have to relinquish booking and management of the Cactus Cafe to our partners at the Unions."

Bane’s World at Spider House Ballroom in 2018 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Spider House Ballroom Reopens Under New Ownership

Spider House Ballroom, currently called the Ballroom with a rebrand pending, reopened under new ownership. According to recently hired booker Ashley Bradley, the business is now owned by Chris Baker, proprietor of Arlo's plant-based eateries. The campus area hosts a long-term Arlo's food truck.

Bradley came aboard with former Holy Mountain/Red 7/Sidewinder partner Jared Cannon, who's helping reestablish the space. Former Dozen Street booker known as For Spite Creative, she kicked off last Tuesday with a video release show for Whiskey Shivers member Jeff Hortillosa. She plans to host former weekly Dozen Street staple Butter N Jam in the Ballroom, while continuing comedy residencies like Peep Show, Shit's Golden, Blackout, and more.

"I'm slowly building the calendar for June, but we're going to get really started in July," says Bradley.

She hopes to work with the city to increase the indoor capacity of 150. In 2019, former owner Conrad Bejarano told the Chronicle the venue would no longer host live music and would become an arcade bar, citing city code issues. This followed a Chronicle cover story detailing alleged sexual misconduct by former co-owner John Dorgan (see "Tangled Web," News, Dec. 21, 2018).

Since then, the venue reintegrated music and comedy programming, but not to the extent of its former status since launching in the Nineties.

"We want to work with bigger bookers to bring in national shows here," she says. "We're going to make some changes to the stage, sound system, and lighting. The owner mentioned he wants the inside to be like a Red River venue and the outside to be like [Cosmic Coffee]."

Bradley says the Ballroom at 2906 Fruth will operate separately from the neighboring cafe, currently closed for renovations with a new fence separating the patio behind the buildings. According to Travis County records, the cafe at 2908 Fruth was purchased Feb. 12 by NLX Fruth LLC, an entity registered to Jimmy Nassour. The major Austin landowner also owns the former Sidewinder space, now bar Birdie Num Nums.

Erika Wennerstrom at Haute Spot on May 16 (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

New $10 Million for Music, Targeting Venues and Live Music Fund

Last Thursday, City Council allocated $10 million of an incoming federal economic relief package for Austin music. The portion of the American Rescue Plan will be distributed over two years, up to $5 million annually, through grants for "Austin music professionals, organizations, and enterprises." The funds joined $15 million for artists and arts organizations on a unanimously approved item introduced by Council Member Vanessa Fuentes.

On the music side, the $10 million could help replenish existing programs like the hotel occupancy tax-supported Live Music Fund, diminished due to COVID-19 tourism drops. Community feedback centered on quick release of the LMF.

"Most working musicians still need assistance before gigs return at 100% capacity again," said Pat Buchta, executive director of Austin Texas Musicians. "Given that our state just opted out of extended unemployment benefits, meeting that need in a timely manner is crucial to the survival of our industry."

The money could also re-up the Creative Worker Relief Grant, initially opened last August. Another potential pot is the Live Music Venue Preservation Fund, which provided ongoing support to 28 clubs, but would have required an additional $2.8 million to fund all 52 applicants (revisit "Live Music Preservation Fund Outlays Another $3.5 Million," April 23). Council's latest resolution targets venues without ongoing Preservation Fund grants, as well as those ineligible for federal programs like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant (aka Save Our Stages).

"Many of our venues were quite literally saved by [the] Preservation Fund late last year," said Music Venue Alliance Austin founder Rebecca Reynolds. "However, we still have venues that, by no fault of their own, have fallen through the cracks and not received any disaster relief."

The vote follows budget proposals submitted to Council last month by advocacy group Music Makes Austin and the Austin Music Commission (revisit "The Music Relief Magic Number," April 30). Both requested over $20 million from the ARP and General Fund to support Austin's music economy. Following their requests, Council also directed the City Manager to recommend further funding options for arts and music recovery.

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Cactus Cafe, UT, KUT / KUTX, University Unions, Matt Muñoz, Amy Chambless, Spider House Ballroom, Ashley Bradley, Chris Baker, Arlo's, Jared Cannon, NLX Fruth LLC, Jimmy Nassour, Conrad Bejarano, John Dorgan, American Rescue Plan, Vanessa Fuentes, Pat Buchta, Creative Worker Relief Grant, Live Music Venue Preservation Fund

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