Inside a digital marvel of Madison’s music community. (Graphic by Shaun Soman.)
It hits the browser with a burst of three red fonts, laying without padding or shadow across the background of a photo and a couple of thick black bars, depending on how large the window is. The main photo is a kitty-corner view of the business this website represents. A couple blurry photos of the business’ neon sign offer a bookend of sorts to one section. Across the top of the page, the following message zips ever back and forth: “Everyone has a Great Time!!!”
Thecrystalcornerbar.com launched on May 5, 2004, according to webmaster and designer Paul D. Hirschey. Ever since then, the site has kept patrons and the press up to date on what’s playing at Willy Street’s Crystal Corner Bar—still a crucial venue for Madison’s music community—celebrated the Crystal’s status as a cult Jeopardy! destination, and commemorated the history of 1302 Williamson St., which has been a bar since 1939.
By 2004, of course, the wider Internet was already getting cleaner, sleeker, more visually intuitive, paving the way for the search- and social media-driven experience that defines the online world today. The Crystal Corner website, then, was already a bit retro when it launched, with its scrolling text, heavy use of Arial and Comic Sans fonts, and overall an unwieldy pursuit of function without regard to form. It’s something of an aesthetic wonder, and to this day, neither Hirschey, owner David Day, nor music booker Joe Lambert have shown much interest in upgrading to something more stylish. Lambert notes that Day gives Hirschey “full autonomy” over the site. Also, for a remnant of a clunkier age of the web, the Crystal’s site works shockingly well on mobile devices. All those widgets and doo-dads come through just fine on the Safari and Chrome browsers on my iPhone, at least.
And to its credit, the website gets the info across. As someone who’s been scraping up local concert listings since 2006, I can attest that Hirschey and Lambert are pretty good about keeping the information current, and that the design hasn’t appreciably changed in all that time. Lambert also reliably puts up Facebook events for Crystal shows, and more people probably see those anyway at this point in the reign of social media. (To make things a bit more confusing, the Crystal isn’t entirely tech-averse: It has free WiFi and an internet jukebox.) The Crystal also has a big marquee at the corner of Williamson and Baldwin Streets that thousands of people walk, drive, and bike past daily. Lambert goes and updates the marquee sign with information about the coming week’s shows every Sunday. Lambert also asks the bands he books to create their own flyer and help promote the shows.
Hirschey says it all began with a disgruntled former Crystal employee. Hirschey was then and still is a regular at the bar, and was running his own computer business from his home on Willy Street.
“Someone who had been fired, a music coordinator who had the job that Joe has now, was feuding with the owners,” Hirschey says. “He bought the name crystalcornerbar.com and wanted to charge them $500 to use it, and that infuriated the owners. Everybody in the bar knew about it. So I went and paid $15 or whatever it was for the name thecrystalcornerbar.com. I just put a T-H-E in front of it, and [the owners] were so pleased they didn’t ask me if I knew what I was doing. So I put up the website and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
The angry squatter allowed crystalcornerbar.com to lapse, and the article-deprived URL remains available to this day. Hirschey continues to maintain thecrystalcornerbar.com, updating it with information Lambert emails him about show bookings. “I am the only person that has ever edited the site. Except hackers of course,” Hirschey jokes. Lambert recalls that at one point, someone offered to revamp the site in exchange for drink tokens, but never followed through, “and I didn’t push it after that.”
In an era of versatile, ready-to-rip, browser-based content management systems like WordPress and Squarespace, Hirschey still updates the site using a free program called Microsoft Expression Web 4. (Not to be confused with the open-source Expression Engine.) Before that, he used Microsoft Front Page, which was discontinued in 2006. Hirschey says he has asked Day if he’d be interested in creating an online store, which would require some site upgrades, but that hasn’t panned out yet, so Hirschey is happy to leave things where they are.
“I’ve had people suggest, ‘Why don’t you modernize it?’ And I just don’t see how that’s gonna help,” Hirschey says. “The only information people want is who’s playing tonight. If we had gone to a merchandising thing, I would have updated it.”
Hirschey still works full-time rebuilding, selling, and renting computers, often working with the PCs corporate America casts off. (He started out in the late 1990s with computers from the UW SWAP Shop, after dropping out of UW-Madison and working factory jobs for 10 years.) His company ChessPDH Computer, for which he designed the website, promises “Internet Solutions for the Novice!” and offers additional services, including social media marketing and search engine optimization. His other web-design work includes the site for One Punch Homicide, a documentary about people who went to prison after they “killed someone with one punch” and the impact on their victims’ families. His first-ever web design job was for the Madison Blues Society. “I had to go to a lot of blues shows to maintain that site, and I kind of got hooked,” Hirschey says. “I still go to a lot of blues shows.”
Lambert shares Hirschey and Day’s utilitarian view of the Crystal Corner’s web presence, and sees the website itself as something of a supplement to other promotional efforts. “I don’t get any feedback from bands at all. Not really,” Lambert says. “Really, the social-media promotion is what I drive rather than posting to thecrystalcornerbar.com. In the owner’s mind, it works for us.”