Mar 032011

Image by watsonsinelgin via Flickr

A few social media early birds found a new kind of recorded message on their smartphones on Monday: “Good morning,” said a woman in a soft, deep voice. “It’s February 28th, 2011 A.D. We’re on planet Earth; some of us, anyway.”

The woman on the recording was the singer Erykah Badu, and she spoke through FanTrail, a new application for the iPhone that will make its official debut this month at the South by Southwest festivalin Austin, Tex. Its developers hope to usher in the next phase of social networking, allowing musicians to tap social networks for useful and possibly valuable information about their fans.

Like MySpace or FacebookFanTrail, which also has an Android version in the works, gives artists a simple template for creating an online home, in this case a free mobile app to keep in touch with fans. But FanTrail also includes several innovations that reflect the entertainment industry’s growing need to control the white noise of social networks.

One function, called LoveMail, allows musicians to record short audio messages to fans, a touch that the company, also called FanTrail, sees as more personal than artists’ sometimes ghostwritten Twitter feeds. Another feature, LoveMeter, ranks fans’ loyalty by measuring their activity in buying music and checking in at concerts.

All that love has real dollars-and-cents value, and for Joel Rasmussen, one of the developers, FanTrail solves one of social networking’s most persistent problems: distinguishing true, money-spending fans from all the rest.

On older social media platforms, the artist “doesn’t know if you friended once on Facebook and then walked away, or if you’ve been to every show and know the producer on every album,” said Mr. Rasmussen, 40, who produced and co-wrote a 2006 documentary about the industry’s problems, “Before the Music Dies.”

“This gives artists and fans a new tool to build that relationship to a level that hasn’t been possible before,” he added.

Using FanTrail, artists can tailor messages or commercial offers to specific groups of fans, identified by location or LoveMeter ranking. For instance, a band touring in Chicago might invite only its biggest fans there to a secret show, or offer them premium merchandise. A virtual tip-jar allows artists to collect extra money from fans or raise donations for their favorite cause.

Calling it a “psychographic GPS,” Richard Nichols, the manager of the Roots, imagined that FanTrail could be used for advanced forms of crowdsourcing like testing out new tracks on only the biggest and most loyal followers.

Joshua McClure, 37, Mr. Rasmussen’s partner in FanTrail, considered perhaps more fundamental questions about the types of communication that will happen on the service:

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