30 Years After — Part 11: No. Guarantees.

And so it went. Things in music do not always go as they should for anyone. Even with the best intentions, practices, discipline — circumstances, like boulders, tumble down the mountain you just climbed. No matter how cool the past has been, the present and future have NO. GUARANTEES.

So I surfed for a while. The big waves weren’t coming along until another dark December morning a call from Hawaii asking for help with a Grammy nomination. I’d worked a mainland project for Palm Records a few years earlier and now the Recording Academy had created an entire category for Hawaiian music after some diligent effort. Again, five nominees in the category, all tied to the heritage of Hawaiian music.

Charles Michael Brotman was a nominee for a compilation CD,titled Slack Key Vol. 2 on his label. There were a number of well-known slack key players featured, but they were mostly known among the Hawaiian population. And then a wonderful realization hit me. After asking who the other nominees were and connecting some dots it was a pretty sure bet this album was a major contender to win this Grammy. So a deal was made and we were off to the races.

In the meantime I looked up all the 2004 nominees and noticed Will Ackerman had been nominated for his release, Returning. He had been the main contender we had to get around during Tingstad and Rumbel’s nomination/win a few years earlier.

After a few emails of congrats and pleasantries, I told Will if there was anything I could do to help, it would be a pleasure. I’d talked with him a few times, and since the onset of my career everyone spoke about him in glowing terms. He had the midas touch. He had a successful solo career as an acoustic guitarist; but primarily he was legendary as the founder of Windham Hill Records — perhaps the most successful indie label of the 20th century. You can read his bio here: href=”http://http://www.williamackerman.com/contact-will/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=109″>

Will’s a wonderfully playful kind of guy, and after about three emails, he said, “why should I hire you?” My reply, “I’m the person who kicked your butt on the last nomination.” I’m not taking credit for Eric and Nancy winning, but they did, and Will was a mighty opponent in that Grammy race. So we made a deal, and got off to a bit of a late start, all the while I was working on a pretty powerful strategy for the slack key album.

The window of time between the nominations and the time ballots are cast is pretty small. And it happens during the holiday season. The campaign is merely to get Academy voters to listen to the nominated CDs. There is no pressure or big media push. But there is strategy and a whole lot of work.

There was also a lot on my plate with family coming for Christmas, and a houseful of company. We got through it all, and then the day after Christmas, 2004, there was an earthquake in the Indian Ocean and tsunami that took many, many lives and destroyed scores more. It was an unbelievable tragedy that shook the world.

Every major media outlet ran continuous stories about the devastation. Getting through to any media over the holidays is a miracle, but combined with this, there was global gridlock like I’d never seen. There was essentially no movement as the world watched in grief and amazement what Mother Nature was capable of doing.

So you see, there really are NO. GUARANTEES. OF. ANYTHING. Even with great stories, great news to share, and the means to do it.

All in all it was devastating, and of course, we were all very empathetic. At one point I’d sent an email “apologizing” I wasn’t able to get more done. I do remember Will writing back to say, “there are more important things in the world to worry about.”

Feeling very badly about the whole thing, I’d hired a friend to help me, and we continued with the Hawaiian strategy and changed gears on everything else. It wasn’t total failure, but I didn’t sleep very well for the next two months.

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30 Years After — Part 10: Do The Math and All The Homework Before the Test

The summer of 2003, post-Grammy was not as “solid” as I’d thought in terms of new projects. Publicists are usually one of, it not the last professionals called onto a project. The translation here is very, very few artists plan for the marketing of their projects. It’s the creative work, writing, recording, mixing, mastering that is exciting to them.

More often than not, I’d get phone calls saying “hey, I just released a new album, how much will it cost to do the PR?”

As pleasantly (and perhaps naively) as possible I’d do a quick audit of the situation and ask what their marketing budget was. I say naively because surely these people were professional and had a marketing budget. Surely they knew to properly launch a new release a publicist should have been fully briefed and prepared to go eight weeks BEFORE the street date of the new CD. Surely they knew whatever amount they’d spent on their recording, they should have twice that amount ready to spend on marketing and PR.

Not once during that time or since has a client been fully prepared financially or in terms of time to meet the criteria of a proper launch for a release. Talking with various publicists around the country, it seems I’m in good company. I have no idea what would happen if any of us said, “You’re in a bit of a pickle. I don’t know of anyone who will handle this project for you without a budget, under these time constraints.”

But no. We all figure out what has merit and if we can make it work, even without enough time or funds. Some projects just aren’t strong enough to warrant a campaign. Some are very strong, and it’d be a shame to miss the promo boat on behalf of an ill-prepared client.

Somewhere around this time, one such project came across my desk. It had legs. So it was full-steam ahead with a recommended radio campaign and full-blown PR campaign fitting for the project. Reviews began to come in — really good reviews and the CD was charting with radio.

Then two very strange things happened.  One review in particular came in that was very positive, but the context didn’t sit well with the artist. So the artist sends a blazing email to the reviewer with a copy to me, letting the reviewer know in no uncertain terms (s)he had totally missed the artistic point and would they retract part of the review?

Instantly, I was sure my hair was on fire. I didn’t pick up the phone and tell the client he was fired, but I should have. We all go through certain situations that instantly negate any credibility we might have had with somebody, and if I didn’t keep my thoughts to myself, everyone was going to know about this. Livid doesn’t even come close to the insanity that email set off.

From that point on, I was pretty guarded with this client. And then he pulled the same stunt again. So I mulled it over. That artist would likely never be reviewed by those two media outlets again. They really couldn’t hold me accountable for someone else’s behavior, especially if I sent them new work by different artists. So I trudged ahead. The campaign wasn’t finished and I didn’t want to be unprofessional even if the artist was behaving so badly.

Finally, the kicker in the whole thing came somewhere toward the end of the campaign. I’d agonized over the whole thing much too much when I learned not even one song from this full-length recording had been copyrighted. NOTHING! No registration with a PRO, no Library of Congress documents were submitted.

For those of you who know me, under certain circumstances – okay, many circumstances, I’ve been known to swear like a sailor. And I did — but I’ll spare you the words blow-by-blow. To add insult to injury, I was told payment for the last half of the campaign was going to be postponed. The artist said he was good for the money, and he did finally pay the bill months later. But it was too little too late for redemption. No one could pay me enough money to go through that kind of situation again.

Someone asked me not long ago, “Why is the music business the only one on earth that requires prepayment? Who else does that?” The reason is clear. Artists desperately want services. They want them on their terms and for the amount of money they think they should pay. Prepayment ensures the pro gets paid in a timely manner and for an amount they can live with.

No one goes to the dentist, a lawyer, or a mechanic and TELLS them how  they are going to do their job or how much they are willing to pay them. But it’s pretty darn common in music. In fact, I’d say it’s the rule among artists to tell music professionals how high to jump and which hoops to jump through. They want to be rock stars, the ring leader, the successful entrepreneur and nary a clue how to get there.

Recording artists and touring musicians would be much more successful learning the ropes before they step foot in a studio or on a stage. It appears to be part of the myth, this is a learn-as-you-go profession. But I’m here to tell you the most successful artists are also pretty savvy when it comes to business. The industry isn’t set up to let just anyone succeed. It’s set up quite the opposite.

My advice: Do the math and all the homework before you go to take the test.

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30 Years After: Part 9 — A Huge Lesson

After the fury of the Grammy win — and of course, I mean that it the best way possible, one of the first things I left the house to do was check local music stores to see how many copies were available of Tingstad and Rumbel’s Acoustic Garden.

One of the best things I’d done during the Grammy process was hire a clipping service to measure the media hits throughout the Grammy process. This was the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003. Print media was still king and you could count the number of media impressions accrued.

The number was staggering. 100 million media hits occurred over about 3 months.

So you can imagine my surprise when the local Borders had just one copy of Acoustic Garden in the bin. Surely they’d have more coming soon. I wondered how many they’d sold in the past week or 10 days. Finding the manager, he said that title wasn’t familiar to him, so he’d have to look it up. I explained confidently, Tingstad and Rumbel had just won a Grammy award, and surely copies had flown out the door like hot cakes. Norah Jones won five Grammys and look at all the CDs available in support of that!

As intently as the manager was looking at his computer files, I was becoming a little concerned. Looking over his glasses, the frown lines got deeper the more I babbled about Grammy this and Grammy that, all the media attention in Seattle and Tacoma, Tingstad and Rumbel’s largest market in the country.

Finally the guy told me there had been only one copy in the store over the holiday season, and there were no more on order from the artists’ label. But they had a show that night I stammered. The Tacoma News Tribune just did a big splash in the Entertainment section in support of the win and the welcome home performance at the University of Puget Sound.

Without a doubt I was flabbergasted. What? One stinkin’ copy of a Grammy award-winning CD in a national chain who was selling music to everyone and their brother? How could that be?

Clearly the manager wasn’t at fault and I didn’t want to provide further proof of how ridiculous I could sound in a situation like this. So I went home a bit red-faced.

If you think I was a bit miffed and befuddled…that’s nothing compared to how Eric and Nancy felt. They pressed their label to get more product out as quickly as possible, but it was evident the emotional window for sales had closed. Their label wasn’t prepared for the win.

So here’s the lesson to take away. Media is more than happy to support such fantastic news and clearly when someone is nominated for a huge national award, there needs to be product in place far and wide. What most people probably don’t realize is media expects product to be easily accessible if they commit time and space to a new release in their publication.

This is sort of a lesson in reverse. If you go to media with a new release, a book, or some other time sensitive product with a shelf life, you better darn well be sure product is easy and accessible to the public.

Even though music is accessible instantly today, you have to make sure it’s in traditional as well as non-traditional outlets. Too little access equals little media attention.

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30 Years After — Part 8: Music’s Highest Honor

So the business of PR was a welcome transition into what was my sixteenth year working in music. Having done promo for big arena shows; a very-well known composer and comedy writer; as well as booking was very helpful in creating strategy over the next several years. The business of music is a big picture scenario. The more you know about how all the components work together, the better the tool box becomes when it comes time to pull rabbits out of hats.

Tingstad and Rumbel are a duo based out of Seattle that literally burst onto the scene with a debut CD in 1985 well before I had been introduced to their music. It was a holiday CD, titled The Gift which sold 11,000 copies in 10 weeks if I remember correctly. That CD went on to become a holiday classic in the New Age genre which was dominated by Windham Hill Records with their Winter Solstice Samplers, and Mannheim Steamroller’s ubiquitous Christmas music.

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel had a business model that no one had ever explored. They put two unlikely chamber music instruments together to see what would happen, and their sound was immediately embraced. Classical guitar, oboe and English horn had no template, no blueprint. There were no existing charts, no music, no instruction book for how to make it work. But they did it, which gave them several leverage points to work with.

They were the brand leaders — a peerless duo. They traveled all over the country, and played many halls and venues numerous times over their career — about 100 dates per year at the height of it all. They created strong relationships and long lists of friends in all the various niches that support musicians. While Eric and Nancy were under contract with Narada Records at this point in time, they functioned very much like indie artists with their own booking agent, arranged their radio promo, PR, produced their recordings, wrote nearly every tune they performed, were members and board members of arts councils, NARAS, and the whole kit and kaboodle.

We’d worked together off and on for a few years. Then one morning very early; in December as I recall, the phone rang and Nancy was talking very fast and apologetically said she was sorry to be calling so early, but they’d been nominated for a Grammy award in support of their latest CD, Acoustic Garden. Wow! News like that wakes you up in a big hurry!

Acoustic Garden was Tingstad and Rumbel’s 13th release, launched on August 13, and it had thirteen songs on the CD. As I’d worked on the PR for Acoustic Garden, I typed those numbers frequently and always had this feeling it meant something. I’d never said a word to anyone but continued to think every time I saw those numbers something special was going to happen with that release, and this was that something!

At this point, I knew next to nothing about how the Grammy process worked. By 8:00 o’clock that morning I was in a whole different world. I hung up the phone with someone and a wave of utter terror came over me. I had no idea what to do. A few more phone calls and I set out to teach myself how to handle this wonderful new problem.

This was not routine. This was a time to hurry up and connect the dots. There was a very small window of time for votes to be cast by the academy. With five nominees in the category, all of whom were strong contenders, strategy had never been more important. By 9:15 that evening, my husband mentioned I’d been working without a break for 14 hours. By 10:00 p.m. the reward was to see and hear that the news of their nomination was on many local TV stations in Seattle, was included in newscasts and music columns in many of the markets where Eric and Nancy had recently performed, and much more was in the works.

The Grammy Awards were held in Madison Square Garden that year on February 23, the day before my oldest daughter’s 12th birthday. In the back of my mind I continued to think I should go to the Grammys. It would be a little expensive for all of us to go, but I didn’t want my family to miss it if I went. So I just kept working until the voting process was over, deciding to decide later.

The week of the Grammys is exciting. Not as exciting as the nomination news which is very much like a bomb going off in your office, but exciting! It’s the biggest party the music industry throws every year and it’s big doin’s!

By this time, I’d let my intuition convince me to stay home and not go to New York. Both sides of the argument let me know I may regret the decision either way it went. But one thing kept me home: If Tingstad and Rumbel won, I’d have missed a huge opportunity to get as much publicity for them as I could. It wouldn’t really be possible to do everything necessary from New York.

So that Sunday afternoon I sat at my desk answering emails and waiting by the phone. New York is three hours ahead of west coast time, so the time difference cut down the wait considerably. What I wanted to do was be prepared, but I wouldn’t let myself type a press release that said they’d won. If I’d written a press release and they didn’t win, I’d convince myself I jinxed it. I know. Superstition really is silly. The decision in a vote by their peers had been finalized several weeks before this day had arrived.

Nancy called sometime mid-afternoon to let me know they’d won. The announcement came during the non-televised portion of the program and honestly, there was something that wouldn’t let me believe it. In fact, when Nancy called, I remember saying something like “oh my God, you’re kidding me.” What a dumb thing to say to someone who just just reached an apex in their career. In truth, I’d wanted this so much for all concerned I’d probably built up some emotional wall in case it didn’t happen.

But it did happen and within minutes that press release was written and being sent off to everyone I could think of. And for the next eight days I didn’t leave the house. Not once. Every media outlet in Seattle was interested in one way or another, and for quite some time, rock star status belonged to Eric and Nancy.

What a rush!

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel Photo credit: Tingstad and Rumbel

Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel Photo credit: Tingstad and Rumbel

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30 Years After: Part 7 — The Gift

30 Years After – Part 7: The Gift

Life has a way of interrupting our best intentions. Sorry for the lapse in time since the last post. Life is unavoidable –ya know?

Where I left off, PR was becoming the focus of my journey through the world and business of music. In 1999 I decided to end my duties as a booking agent. I was at a crossroads really: Should I have a more conventional career aspiration, or dive off the deep end into public relations on behalf of regional artists? Taking some time away from the whole thing proved interesting. There was suddenly time to do things without the piles of music stuff clogging part of the house. And yet, the absence of the art continually nagged at the stillness. The phone wasn’t ringing as much, though a few business calls continued to come in. Packages weren’t arriving on a regular basis as they had before.

This brief period of time was a life lesson. Once anyone has been involved in creative work for a period of time, you simply cannot ‘not’ do it. It’s in you, and that’s that. No amount of self-talk or cold turkey withdrawal will satisfy the pull back into the creative circle. Too, the relationships working with people in the regional industry were as much working relationships as they were friendships.

One day during the summer of 1999 at a local eatery the song “San Francisco” was playing on a juke box. A friend was kiddingly arguing about the origin of the song. I was adamant it was Scott McKenzie who made the tune a classic while the friend swore up and down it was John Phillips of the Mamas and Papas. So I made a bet. If I was right, I’d resume my career in music. Turns out we were both right. Phillips wrote it, but it was McKenzie who recorded it, making it one of the most recognized songs of the 20th century.

So I bought every text book recommended at the University of Washington on communications and public relations, and dove right in. It’s a much more complicated subject than you might imagine and it took several months of constant study to get through the process.

And then, I got a phone call from a booking agent one day asking about the concert series I’d started with the city. It wasn’t long before the conversation steered toward PR, and “did I know anyone who might want to work with her client, Tingstad & Rumbel?”

What a gift. [Thank you, Carol!]

Within a couple of months I began working with Eric Tingstad and Nancy Rumbel – a working relationship and friendship that continue to this day. What’s more, I don’t think I could have found a better client to work with in the beginning. There are a number of reasons why, and some of them will be highlights of subsequent posts.

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30 Years After – Part 6: The Booking Playbook

Being the head of a small, somewhat unorthodox booking agency was my life from 1995 to 2000. Many things transpired over that period that would make a big difference as my career continued to unfold.

It’s pretty hard to believe as of this writing when musicians are literally begging to find booking agents — 20 years ago, many people owned small booking agencies, and the number of performing/recording artists was easily ten times less than we experience today.

Performing arts centers were popping up everywhere in the Pacific Northwest.  The northwest is mostly rural and musicians with even minimal name recognition could bring audiences to venues who were taking advantage of regional talent. It seemed a perfect and level playing field where everyone was working to build community from one small town to the next.

After a time, the venues discovered if they could attract much bigger names to their small town, they would sell out performances. Venues were taking a risk paying considerably higher fees potentially netting handsome profits.

It didn’t take long and bigger names were filling halls all over the region. Top-name regional artists were left with fewer dates when it was their influence that helped build the arts scene in every regional little hamlet, town, and city.

Booking agents began disappearing in the late 1990s because their artists weren’t a big enough draw to keep venues interested.

My little agency wasn’t doing badly, but it could have been better. I knew that the venues weren’t promoting artists as well as they could. And they didn’t really have to when they had big names on their season series.

From the start I had looked for a PR agent in the Seattle area to work with. There were tons of publicists but they were all working for Microsoft, Amazon, and companies with a technical slant. I had media contacts from my stint in the rock scene,  but my clients weren’t of interest to pop and rock journalists.

Doing what I could, being booking agent and publicist was pushing the envelope pretty hard. The media contacts who would work with me couldn’t possibly write about every  performance we had locally or regionally.

Even still, it was obvious PR held more potential than booking. Though they’re pretty similar, the big difference was music journalists had years of experience, while venues were run by  people who knew very little about music.

Part of what colored my opinion about booking was I’d joined forces with the small town where I lived helping to establish their first-ever outdoor concert series in a beautiful park.  The city employee I worked with decided to quit her job midway into the process, so the whole thing was handed over to me to administer under the tutelage of the city administrator who was convinced a summer series of six shows should cost $500.

At the time I had adequate funds to cover the balance for what the city budgeted. Under that agreement, I held the city’s feet to the fire and told them if they wanted to start an annual series they had to book quality artists and pay them accordingly, which they agreed to.

Gathering a bunch of civic-minded people, we all met to select our first series from a small group of submissions.  In that group of artists were some really great shows and the first contract issued went to Japanese taiko drummers.

There was a flurry of preparations, checks and balances with the city. The park was situated right beside a train rail which was going to be a problem. Amtrak and Burlington Northern had several runs daily, but I didn’t know when or exactly how many.  So I called Burlington Northern thinking I could somehow find a solution.

“All I want to know is what the train schedule is so we can plan  an outdoor concert series around it, ” I explained. “Ma’am we’re Burlington Northern and we come through that town several times a day.”

“All I need is a general schedule to avoid the train whistles disrupting performances.”

“Ma’am, 60 trains a day come through your area. We cannot say with any accuracy when train whistles will blow at that crossing.”

Sixty a day? We’d just have to deal with it.

Another obvious obstacle in Washington state — the weather is highly unpredictable.  An old joke truthfully reflects summer starts on July 5 in the northwest. Six concerts were planned for every Friday night after July 5. Posters were designed and distributed for storefronts, press releases went out on a regular basis to communities within a 50-mile radius, and local businesses were contacted to participate. It was a virtual firestorm of PR, launching a new series with a diverse lineup of family entertainment. Much harder to achieve than an arena show.

Though centuries old, taiko emerged after the second World War. Taiko has mythological origins in Japanese folklore whose purpose was  ceremonial in religious rituals or events calling the community together. It’s important to note after World War II, a Japanese internment camp  existed just 10 minutes away from where the concert was being held.

The taiko drummers would be an excellent opener. A 12-member ensemble with traditional hand-crafted instruments intolerant of rain. As a precaution a large tent was erected, and just a few hours before the concert began, a torrential downpour jeopardized the beginning of an annual series that continues to this day.

The drummers were at my house trying to decide if they should play or not. They’d travelled quite a distance and if they didn’t play they wouldn’t get paid according to the contract. I was certain no one would come to an outdoor show in sloppy weather, and secretly hoped we might cancel with an agreement to reschedule. But no. They decided the show would go on.

As the taiko performance began, a crowd silently gathered around the fringe of the park under a mass of umbrellas. With rain pounding all around me I was amazed to see dozens of Japanese Americans respectfully stand, listening to instruments native to their heritage calling the community together.

Honestly, it was something like a religious experience. And thankfully, not one train whistle blew disrupting the moment.


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30 Years After – Part 5: Music Older Than Dirt

Within a window of about 11 years, I’d worked with and alongside some of pop culture’s biggest names, then some even bigger names over on the concert circuit at the height of arena shows. I’d accidentally run into a few grungy kids who were about to become household names, then settled into a nice comfy spot promoting old music.

Old as dirt.

The dead guys’ stuff from way back before the earth cooled.

Yep, I was high rollin’ in the music dough. The high brow stuff with blue blood and bow ties, at high tea during silent auctions learning all I could about the guys that got this gig rolling in the first place with names like Ludwig, Wolfgang, Johannes, Franz, and Camille.

Still teaching piano lessons and working the Community Concert circuit, finding my way into a world everyone knows a little bit about but doesn’t give a damn. The opera, the symphony — the recital hall trenches.

Very nice folk.

Proper and icy.

It’s the academic side of music that’s only interesting in academia. The professors, their prodigies, and corporate types who needed an easy slot for their tax write offs. It’s the kind of environment where everything must be perfect. The notes were written down hundreds of years ago — and every string player, horn and reed section player from here to eternity — each with an ego as big as Rhode Island — has memorized them all at some time or another. And don’t forget the guy with right arm disease — the conductor. The guy who rolls out austere criticism much like Steve Jobs unveiled a new Mac.

It’s a very bitchy world, indeed.

It snaps, cackles, and pops with every step toward the front of the room.

No one, but no one, believes they can be replaced in that world. But the truth is, people have been replaced repeatedly over centuries, every time a  flautist, French horn player or the like dies.

One of my longest acquaintances in this field had a humorous view of it all, remarking, “You have to wonder about people who’ve done absolutely nothing with their lives except play one instrument. It really makes you wonder about their self-esteem.”

Now that you have a good idea of the profile within this community of stiff, starched, and tightly strung — now consider accepting the most thankless job in the world in this environment. Being the booking agent for a concert pianist, trumpet player, and a clarinet soloist. These are people who hold their art in the highest regard while the rest of the world is digging Eric Clapton, Annie Lennox, 10,000 Maniacs, Garth Brooks, and Shania Twain.

Young and eager with time on my hands I got a call one day from a woman I had a very loose association with one state away who said, “I can’t do this any more. If you don’t take it over, I don’t know who will help these people.”

Mind you we’re still talking the last part of the twentieth-century at this point. I had a few contacts I could engage in this new enterprise, continue to teach piano lessons, and raise two high-spirited intelligent little girls. I can’t was not in my vocabulary, and getting 15% of a recital hall fee 18 to 24 months after the actual contract was issued seemed very civilized.

Motivated by nothing but fear, I increased the business of this tiny booking agency by 400% in the first year.  Then I expanded the roster to include different styles of music — some was even older than the classical stuff.  Celtic music was on the rise and Great Scot the Irish rock!

With every new artist added to the roster, I introduced them to my graphic designer, wrote new copy, had new photos taken, and got their story rolling in the right direction. The idea of branding was the new buzz word and building the myth behind a brand was the talk of the music world.

Networking, email, desktop publishing, booking conferences, newsletters, monthly mailings, world music — these were all the rage fueling the music machine just a few years before Napster took hold, and Michael Jackson claimed his music was healing.

Well, if this part of the story didn’t put you to sleep, save a few minutes for the next entry — things do pick up a bit!

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