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AOL's Velvet Rope has rumors galore

The site becomes a must-read for music industry insiders

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At last, people in the entertainment biz can say ”My lips are sealed” and mean it. These days, music-industry types who have trouble keeping confidences are more likely to let their fingers do the squawking. The place to let it all hang out, gossip-wise, is The Velvet Rope, a limited-access, invitation-only forum for music-industry professionals on America Online. Hundreds post on the bulletin board, while thousands lurk silently, hoping their names will — or won’t — come up amid the cyberbuzz, depending on whether it’s Fat Tuesday or Black Friday.

Is Diamond Dave already back out of Van Halen? Why have so many top executives left Atlantic Records? Did Tupac bring his fate upon himself? Who’s Courtney sleeping with this week? Think of The Velvet Rope as a music-news outlet with scores of eager cub reporters, most of whom dozed through their J-school ethics class, a few of whom might actually have the inside dope — pseudonymously relayed, of course. Like it or not, this online rumor mill represents the democratization of ”news,” promising instant access (for those who know the right keyword, anyway) to unedited, unsorted information and innuendo.

If not everyone in the industry reads VR, practically all are aware of it, if only because of the fires they have had to put out. Hootie’s A&R executive, Tim Sommer, for example, regularly posts to amend inaccurate statements about the Blowfish, and Mercury Records head Danny Goldberg has issued corrections. Sony Music chief Thomas Mottola felt compelled to do an interview with Billboard last year just to deny rumors of firings being spread in the folder. Though most rockers who visit stay in lurk mode, Courtney Love has dropped by to squelch rumors — and start new ones. (It was here that Love pitted Madonna’s Maverick Records and Alanis Morissette against everything she said Nirvana stood for: ”It’s a war — pick a side, a–hole.”) A few weeks ago, Valerie Bertinelli made a special guest appearance to set the record straight on husband Eddie Van Halen’s relationship with his group’s off-and-on lead singer, David Lee Roth. (”I can tell you for a fact that Ed does not ‘have an intense hatred’ for Dave,” she protested.)

Who is it that gives ’em enough Rope? Three years ago, Julie Gordon, currently an A&R exec at the Enclave label, took over an informal music folder called Record Industry Dirt on AOL. Noting its immense popularity, AOL invited Gordon to create an official site a year ago. Now AOL subscribers who type the keyword ”Flash” can gain access to her public bulletin board, but VR can be reached only by application, which the folder’s irascible doyenne must personally approve.

Gordon says VR is for anyone ”from interns to CEOs.” But cyberspace democracy is not for everyone. What exec wants to think the mail-room guy might know his VP stripes are history before he does? Management types have been known to loathe the Rope for the misinformation it disseminates — though some no doubt hate it even more when the chatter is accurate.