Songwriters Hall of Fame CEO Linda Moran Talks About Being 'Godmother' to Music's Top Execs and Artists

On a Tuesday in April, Linda Moran did two things that were a little unusual: She didn’t respond to phone calls or emails for most of the day, and she spent that time talking about herself.

To be clear, Moran enjoys talking -- there are no short conversations with Linda Moran -- but she doesn’t take naturally to putting herself at the center of her own stories. Moran, president/CEO of the Songwriters Hall of Fame, is one of the music industry’s first female power brokers, having risen through the ranks at Atlantic Records to become the first female executive at Warner Music Group in 1991. “I checked our records, and I see that Linda started working for our music group at Atlantic in 1970,” said Time Warner CEO Jerry Levin when she received the Recording Academy's New York Heroes Award in 2001. “And we’ve been working for her ever since.” She is known as “The Godmother,” part guardian angel and part consigliere, and dozens -- if not hundreds -- of executives, managers and artists call themselves her godchildren.

Her phone pings. Like good godchildren, Moran’s keep in touch. It might be one of the many C-suite players who turn to her for counsel on everything from business strategy to what to wear to an event. “When a truck is coming to hit me she’s the one saying, ‘You need to step to the left,’ ” says Evan Lamberg, president of Universal Music Publishing North America. Or it might be one of the many artists that she’ll fly cross-country to surprise at a concert or awards ceremony. Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds, who calls her “Mama L,” says Moran has been both a professional mentor and a personal “calming force.” “When I went through a separation with my wife, she was there giving me advice, and we ended up getting back together,” he says. “When someone is in the same industry as you, with decades of experience -- there’s a specific wisdom that comes from that.”

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame
Moran with Reynolds in 2014.

Moran lives with her husband of 46 years, Mike -- a former RCA master engineer who worked with Elvis Presley, David Bowie and many more -- in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in a spacious ranch house. The walls are warm sherbet colors, and the pool overlooks the 16th hole of the PGA National championship course. It’s a Sunshine State man-made paradise, the sort of place people come to slow down. Not Moran. At 73, she moves the same way she talks: with limitless energy. (“The Energizer Bunny on steroids,” says Lamberg.) She works from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., then picks up with emails, texts and calls a few hours after dinner until she turns in between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. Her neighbors sometimes call her “the vampire.”

The phone pings again. No one is used to Moran being off the grid. A self-described control freak, she has her hands on all things Songwriters Hall of Fame -- from photo selection for the newsletter to the seating chart for the annual induction gala that will take place June 13 at the Marriott Marquis in New York’s Times Square. Since 2001, she has built the event into one prized for its rare mix of classicism and currency. The honorees at this year’s ceremony -- which will celebrate the hall’s 50th anniversary -- include Carole Bayer Sager, John Prine, Missy Elliott, Tom T. Hall, Martin Bandier and Halsey. Artists -- young and old -- feel validated by the recognition of their contribution to the songbook. (Van Morrison skipped his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; he’s turned up at the Songwriters Hall of Fame gala both times he’s been honored.) Non-recording songwriters take centerstage to share their stories. It’s the sort of evening when the room buzzes with the intimate electricity that existed before TV cameras and skyboxes came to define awards shows. “It has a family feel,” says Moran. “Nobody sits and texts. Nobody talks. And nobody leaves.” She designed it that way. “That’s why I keep the tables close together -- you can’t even move.”

Another ping. Moran silences her phone. For once, other people will have to wait.



The Morans have put their West Palm house on the market, with thoughts of downsizing. It's pin-neat, with a jukebox in the living room, but not too many other signs that music royalty lives here. Tucked in a hallway are framed album covers and plaques from projects Mike engineered -- among them The Archies' “Sugar, Sugar,” Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and a 1971 album by James Darren, Mammy Blue. Darren, who played Moondoggie in the Gidget movies, was Moran’s first music love: In 1959, at age 12, she won a contest in Modern Screen magazine to be his fan club president. “Mike didn’t tell me he was recording with Jimmy Darren until he was done,” she says. “I was like, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Her own keepsakes are in her home office, among them a poster from the 1988 HBO telecast of the Atlantic Records 40th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, another from an Apollo Theater fundraiser Moran organized for Natalie Cole. (“The block of 125th Street in front of the Apollo is named ‘Nat King Cole Way,’” Moran says. “I was the one that got that done through the Mayor’s office”).

Her most prized possession hangs behind her desk: the original sheet music for “A Brand New Day” from The Wiz, a gift from the composer, Quincy Jones. “He said, ‘Girl, the magic you create -- you are the Wiz,’ ” remembers Moran.

“I have been in this business for a long time, and you have to quickly develop a keen BS detector if you want to survive,” says Jones. “When I first met Linda, I knew immediately that there was no BS in her.” Jones has long called her “my sister from another mister.” A backstage laminate for an AC/DC show that hangs from a lamp in her office identifies her differently: “The Boss.”

She grew up blue collar in Danbury, Connecticut, the oldest of five. Her work ethic, like her passion for music, took hold early: along with James Darren’s fan club she was soon also running one for Johnny Restivo, who had a hit with “The Shape I’m In” when he was 15. “I had a press card from 16 magazine,” she says. “I was the teen editor for an issue of Teen Life when I was in high school.”

In 1965, she started as a secretary at RCA -- Johnny Restivo’s label -- two weeks shy of her nineteenth birthday. “I was this virginal naive country girl, and everyone took me under their wings,” she says. “They used to call me ‘Little Mary Sunshine.’ ” Moran doesn’t drink (she’s allergic), and has never done drugs -- or even had a sip of coffee. RCA is where she met Mike, who “was the king-of-the-hill engineer,” she says.

In 1970, she moved over to Atlantic, working for CFO Sheldon Vogel. “He was the nucleus,” says Moran. “Everything went through him. So at 23 years old I was the one taking care of everybody, because everybody was coming to me for everything.” RCA was buttoned-up. “If you had a comma out of place for label copy, you would be in trouble,” she says. Atlantic felt more like a hurricane of creativity and excess. “I was always the designated driver,” says Moran, who became Atlantic’s first female assistant vp, and second-ever female senior vp. (The first was Sylvia Rhone.) “Somebody put a bronze sign on the wall outside my door saying, ‘Chaplain’s Office -- confessions heard daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.”

“If Linda ever wrote a book, people would be in prison,” says Dorothy Carvello, an Atlantic A&R person in the 1980s who detailed a culture of unrestrained misbehavior and sexual harassment -- a “circus mixed with an orgy” -- in her own tell-all, Anything for a Hit. But such a book is unlikely -- Moran has received interest in the past, and those confessions remain sealed.

Moran says she never experienced “serious sexual harassment.” But there were always men who made her uncomfortable, touchy-feely guys whose hugs lingered a little too long. #MeToo, she says, is long overdue, and “still has a long way to go.” Despite the progress that has been made, women are still “pushed out of the room,” she says, when it comes to decision-making. She recounts a story about a headhunter who called her regarding a woman candidate, whom she gave rave reviews. “And he said, ‘You’re the 13th call I’ve made, and you’re the first one to tell me she’s not a total bitch.’ I said, ‘Oh, let me guess: I’m also the first woman you’ve called.’ ”

In 1991 she became the first female executive at the newly christened Warner Music Group (WMG), in a role with eight areas of responsibility, including artist and industry relations, events, special projects, HR, and philanthropy. As Warner, Elektra and Atlantic were sucked up into the Time Warner behemoth, she became the guardian of old-school values in an increasingly corporate culture. “I was the non-suit everybody would talk to and trust -- artists, managers, executives,” she says. They called her “Switzerland.” “My job was to work it all out, to fix it.”

“Linda was the glue,” says Curb Records chief creative adviser Jim Ed Norman, who got to know Moran during his time as president of Warner Bros. Records Nashville. “She helped coalesce the disparate factions of Warner Music Group.” She worked across Time Warner properties -- if Time Inc. was launching a new magazine, it was her job to find a band to play the party, then convince the label president and manager it was everyone’s interest to eat the costs involved. Norman describes her style as “kind, thoughtful, yet still elusive. All of a sudden -- boom! -- something was done, and Linda was the force then behind it.”

She was the invisible hand behind everything from massive Grammy parties and WMG’s support of AmeriCorps, to helping Brandy create a literacy program and Tori Amos launch the Rape, Abuse and Incest Network.

“Artist relations didn’t exist everywhere at the labels,” says RIAA senior vp artist industry relations and chief of West Coast operations Joel Flatow, another godchild who met Moran when he started at the association in 1995. Moran pretty much invented the role. “She was the person who would connect artists to causes. She was on the Grammy board, the MusiCares board. She had an encyclopedic knowledge of the industry.”

Moran was also the rare executive who got more done through kindness than intimidation, and -- just as rare -- one who preferred to remain behind the scenes. But her work was not always respected. “The legal and financial guys thought my job was easy -- I got to work with the artists and do these events and travel -- not knowing that I’m working my ass off,” she says.

In 2000 she let Jerry Levin know she wasn’t renewing her contract. “My job was 24/7, and we wanted to travel,” she says. “I needed to renew my spirit and refresh my soul.” Levin wanted her to stay and asked her what it would take. So, she named conditions she was sure would never be met -- work from home, work less, and more -- and got everything she asked for. She became a special advisor to Levin and Time Warner COO Dick Parsons on music-related special projects, events and issues.



When Songwriters Hall of Fame (SHOF) chairman Hal David asked Moran to move from the board to the presidency of the organization in 2001, "I asked, ‘Why would I be the president? I’m not a publisher, I’m not a songwriter. My whole career has been working with artists,’” she remembers. “And he said, ‘I need somebody that will get things done and you really get things done.’”

At the time, the induction was a small event of several hundred. More than one person compares it to a Friars Club gathering. But after a year or two Moran began to change all that. Phil Ramone -- who had made albums with everyone from Frank Sinatra to Bob Dylan -- became her producer, and she broadened the field. Songwriters are eligible for induction 20 years after their first credit, but in 2004 Moran introduced the Hal David Starlight Award -- named in honor of David’s support for young songwriters -- to recognize contemporary talent: John Mayer, Alicia Keys, Taylor Swift, Drake, Ed Sheeran and, this year, Halsey.

Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame
Hal David Starlight Award winner, Ed Sheeran and Linda Moran attend the Songwriters Hall Of Fame 48th Annual Induction and Awards at New York Marriott Marquis Hotel on June 15, 2017 in New York City. 

Thus, the SHOF worked a magic trick: It managed to honor the history of the industry, bringing songwriters onstage to tell the stories behind their work, while capturing the current moment. In 2017, Jay-Z became the first hip-hop artist inducted into the hall; the following January, he went 0-8 at the Grammys. The contrast is striking.

Moran credits Sony/ATV Music Publishing president/CEO Jon Platt, who joined the SHOF board in 2015, with “putting us on the right side of history.” “They invited me in the room. I used my voice. And they listened,” says Platt. “But getting them nominated is one thing; getting them voted in is another. Jay’s on the ballot, Jermaine Dupri’s on the ballot, Missy Elliott is on the ballot. But they’re being voted in by the songwriting community and the industry," adds Platt, who, it turns out, is not too big for the Godmother treatment: “She’ll send me a text: ‘Great interview but smile next time!’ ” And he notes her caring goes both ways: “I’ve heard her go in on people too. She’s not afraid to have a tough conversation. You got to bring your extra artillery if you’re going to battle with Linda.”

Under Moran, the nonprofit’s fundraising has more than tripled, from $532,150 in 2000 to $1.7 million in 2016, and this year’s gala will draw 1,300 guests. Despite its prestige, the ceremony “is done bare bones,” she says. “I did away with flowers years ago. I gave up colored tablecloths to save money.” Discussions a few years ago with the Brill Building for a physical home for the hall didn’t work out. “The pricing was just outrageous.” A TV deal with Bravo lasted three years, and Moran isn’t keen to find another. The money would be nice, but “I have done enough events where you’ve got cameras over your heads when your people are paying $50,000 a table,” she says.

As the event approaches, Moran pretty much goes without sleep as she finalizes that seating chart. “It looks like Einstein figuring out the theory of relativity on the blackboard,” says Lamberg. Her photographic memory enables her to draw on the history of those in the room. “She’s cognizant of who has worked with whom, who may be entering into something with someone, who would benefit by being near each other,” says John Titta, executive vp membership at ASCAP and, like Lamberg, a SHOF board member.  “I’ve seen her make last-minute changes at rehearsals.”

“I know where every single person of the 1,300 are sitting,” says Moran. She does for the event what she has done for the record industry: She “godmothers” the room. She’s the invisible hand, helping shape deals, careers and, above all, relationships.

In the almost two decades she’s been running the hall, Moran has seen growing recognition of songwriters. “We’re not an advocacy group,” she says. “But people are more aware of the contributions. They’ve always said it all begins with the song, but finally they’re out there fighting for songwriters.” Still, she sometimes worries that something has been lost. Labels are booming, private equity is snapping up publishing companies, but they don’t always understand the relationships and the history -- the legacy -- behind the business. The very thing that the Songwriters Hall of Fame celebrates.

“The reason that you went into the music business was the music and the people,” she says. “What’s missing is the camaraderie. The younger people, they don’t hang.” Except one night a year, when it all unfolds according to her rules. Then everyone hangs.

A version of this article originally appeared in the June 15 issue of Billboard.