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Attention Houston: What To Do When a Beloved Music Venue Says It's Shutting Down

Rocks Off is here to help. That's why we keep an eye out for stories that, while they may not have anything to do with Houston per se, can still provide a valuable lesson. So as much as we delight in poking fun at Austin, the recent plight of the Cactus Cafe - the on-campus acoustic venue that has been invaluable to the careers of onetime Houstonians like Lyle Lovett, Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, Nanci Griffith, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell - is no time for schadenfreude.

Less than two weeks ago, the University of Texas, via the board of directors of on-campus student center the Texas Union, announced it would close the Cactus, a beloved (and blessedly quiet) music venue in Austin for more than 30 years, this coming August and, perhaps, make it available to whatever student group was willing to rent it.

Blame Rick Perry if you must: According to The New York Times, the governor asked the University to identify 5 percent of its $2 billion budget it might be willing to part with; the Cactus costs UT a whopping $66,000 per year. The Cactus was an easy target, university officials said, because - despite demonstrable evidence to the contrary - it's primarily used by non-students.

Austin, as you might imagine, went ballistic. And in so doing, the capital city provided three important tips on what to do should something like this happen a little closer to home.

Start a Facebook page or two. The Texas Union board announced the Cactus' impending closure on January 26. As of this afternoon, the "Save the Cactus Cafe" page had 7,209 fans (yes, including Rocks Off), and the similarly named group had over 12,000 members. Do the math, then search Twitter under "#cactuscafe."

Start a nonprofit. Monday, Save the Cactus Cafe filed the required paperwork to incorporate under the 501(c)(3) bylaws. The group's stated short-term goal is to:

"convince the Texas Union management to formally commit to keeping the Cactus Cafe open through a plan that preserves its fundamental character in its current location, provides a secure financial future for the legendary venue, and builds upon its current operating model to allow greater opportunity for students in managing and performing in the Cactus Cafe and interfacing with local and national music professionals."

Long-term, it hopes channel enough money into the Cactus to ensure the venue remains self-sustaining in perpetuity. Rocks Off loves using words like that.

Alert the media. Also since the announcement, the Cactus and the campaign to keep it open has been written up everywhere from Rocks Off's old stomping grounds The Daily Texan and Austin Chronicle all the way up the chain to The Times. "Old media" still works sometimes, y'all.

At the moment nothing has changed, but if nothing else, the pro-Cactus forces have seized the momentum. Would Houston respond with the same groundswell of grass-roots support should, say, Numbers, Anderson Fair or Fitzgerald's one day find itself on the chopping block?

Frankly, Rocks Off has our doubts. But at least we'll have some idea what to do, and where to start, if that ever happens.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray