Crystal Bergman takes lead at Madison Line Records, takes on gender bias in music industry

In early 2018, the 60th annual Grammy Awards ceremony had its turn in the movement of public reckonings over gender bias in the entertainment industry.

Several well-known musicians like Pink, India.Arie and Kelly Clarkson along with women executives in the industry criticized the broadcast content and format. The three-hour ceremony included only one woman accepting a solo Grammy during the televised portion of the show and Recording Academy President Neil Portnow saying that women who want to work in the music industry need to “step up.”

In Memphis, one record label is intentionally flipping the perspective of women in the industry, promoting a former star student to a top executive position. 

Crystal Bergman is Visible Music College's California campus director, a regional recruitment coordinator, and operations manager for the organization's Memphis-based Madison Line Records. 

The mission of Visible Music College — to grow artists’ skills and character for careers in the music industry or the church — has campuses in Memphis, Dallas, Chicago and Atascadero, California. Musicians earn bachelor’s degrees in music business, music production or modern music, in addition to certificates and master’s degrees in other areas of music education. VMC’s flagship campus is located at 200 Madison Avenue in Downtown Memphis.

Bergman is originally from the small town of Idyllwild in Southern California, where she spent her childhood heavily involved in music and the arts. After completing two associate degrees and getting married, Crystal and her husband researched several music schools and decided to move to Memphis to explore careers in the music industry.

“We said, ‘Let’s do it. Let's go to Memphis and let's explore and see if this is something that we feel like God's calling us to.’ Everybody was like, 'What are you doing?’ I was 24 and my husband was 26,” she said.

She began attending VMC in 2007 and working on various projects and internships. That same year, she began volunteering for Madison Line. She earned such high praise from supervisors and peers that Ken Steorts, founder and president of Madison Line, hired her upon graduation in 2009 to help manage the label. 

As the record label's operations manager, Bergman now oversees artist development, publishing, music production, promotions, events and sales.

Artist development is what Bergman is most drawn to — it’s “the bug” that infected her as a student. She was so impressed with the care and attention she received from instructors that as staff, she's worked to parlay it into a formal program called Constant Attention.

As students engage in experiential learning and create their own music projects, industry professionals guide them through a seven-step process that provides timeline accountability and support for components like self-assessment, marketing, merchandising and show booking. Solidifying Constant Attention has been a primary focus for Bergman as Madison Line prepares to sign several new artists in 2019.

The 37-year-old is one of the small number of women in the recording industry, according to research released by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

The report, commissioned under the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, found that from 2012 to 2017, 87.7% of the 2,767 credited songwriters sampled from the Billboard Hot 100 year-end charts were male. In addition, the ratio of male to female producers was 49:1 across 300 songs and 651 producers. Men accounted for 90.7% of the 899 individuals nominated for a Grammy Award between 2013 and 2018.

“We’re in a really interesting time in culture right now, for sure,” Bergman said.

The mother of eight-year-old twin girls, Bergman said she is fortunate to work for Steorts, who values her as a partner. Negative experiences with other male leaders in the industry led Bergman to worry about her job security when she learned she was pregnant.

“I was terrified to tell Ken I was pregnant,” she said.

But Steorts quickly allayed her fears by celebrating her good news and making plans to accommodated the soon-to-be breastfeeding mom. Bergman brought the babies to work every day for the first two years of their lives.

“I would just put a sign on the door that said, ‘Nursing. Don’t come in,’ and [afterwards] I would have my artist development meetings in there," said Bergman.

Six years ago Bergman and her husband moved back to California to be closer to family. Since then, Steorts has worked with multiple people to try to fill the gap she left.

“People had different skill sets that were good but never her comprehensive (skills)," said Steorts. "She has a complete heart and understanding of what we're trying to do at Madison Line, to care for people and the absolute execution of the steps to get there, and that's just pretty rare.”

In 2013 Bergman volunteered for VMC as a recruitment coordinator, and in 2015, Steorts asked Bergman to rejoin the organization full-time in that role. In 2017 she took over operations for Madison Line, and in January 2018 she was asked to help launch a new VMC campus in San Luis Obispo County, California. Going forward she will maintain her duties at Memphis-based Madison Line while serving as campus director for the new location.

As campus director, Bergman is responsible for developing partnerships and resources in the community by creating relationships with churches, fine arts programs and local musicians. She's also responsible for structuring and expanding VMC's community artist programs in the other four VMC locations. With campus planning underway, Bergman is hosting local showcases and connecting with musicians to identify their needs. Many local artists are looking for à la carte management, she said, such as assistance writing a bio, producing projects or sending press releases.

She said she sometimes encounters the pervasive tension of gender discrimination when engaging with faith communities, specifically when initiating meetings with pastors.

“I have noticed this last season, being a female in the church has been a very precarious position,” she explained. “Even though they’ll never admit that’s why they’re blowing you off, that’s why they’re blowing you off.”

Bergman is honest with the women she mentors. She gives them a complete view of what they might encounter during their careers and talks to them about how to handle themselves with men in leadership positions who may abuse their power.

“I’ve worked for guys that are horrible people that I would never continue to work for. It’s not worth naming how many crazy guys I have worked for,” she said.

“But I feel like we’re in this culture of anti-guy at the same time we’re trying to find our voices as women, which I don’t like either because I have brothers and they’re kind, good men. And I have a really great dad, and I have someone like Ken in my life who is an amazing boss.”

After more than a decade of learning and service at VMC, Bergman is confident she's found what she is “supposed to be doing on the planet," which includes encouraging other women to pursue both their dreams and balance in their own lives.

“My biggest thing is, you can do it all. You can be a mom. You can have a job. You can have a marriage.’”

Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

Brandi Hunter is a native Memphian and freelance content creator. She writes and podcasts about Memphis, faith and entrepreneurship for local and national publications, and leads a creative media assistance studio based in Memphis.
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