Tuesday, May 02, 2006

ENGAGING THE ARTIST

ENGAGING THE ARTIST



XM launched in 2001. Quickly we became known for quality music, something to this day we hold of paramount importance. It’s kind of like Word War two where it took the American GI’s to liberate Europe against evil. XM is the modern day musical equivalent as it’s up to us to help liberate American ears from the creative evils of consolidated radio.



As we built our musical reputation, it was clear that we needed to go to a higher level. MORE than musical freedom and passion. We needed a vehicle that will put us into a different space. It’s really not unlike HBO. They ran a lot of movies, but once they introduced original programming, they separated themselves from the pack. Sopranos, Sex and the City, and a myriad of other originals made them so much more than a movie channel.



OK—so how does XM create original long form programming? We have a lot of it with concerts and artist “spectaculars”—they’re great, but they’re not really original in terms of a new idea. Well, we’re all about music, so let’s engage the artists. Initially, reaction from the timeless artists was luke warm. We could score the newer bands looking to plug their new CD, but the ones who and a history…a long term legitimacy we’re simply burned by radio. They didn’t want to go on the air and talk about tits, or answer “deep” questions about how great it is to be back in town. We needed something new…big…and intellectual. Something that the artists would find interesting and the fans could see a new side of the artist. Interviews generally suck. The artist would rather be ordering room service, the DJ is intimidated and the listeners want to hear music…combined with the fact that 99% of all interviews are lame. No new information. Nothing in the least bit edgy. Boring. Now Bob Edwards and many of our guys are interview masters---but generally speaking an interview is part of a cattle call to support a new release.



Along the way, George Taylor Morris had Yes and Graham Nash into XM. They performed, but instead of a straight gig, he’d intersperse the songs with an interesting Q&A. About the song…the structure…the inspiration. As with most XM performances there was an audience. The artists loved this…so did I. We then went to the drawing board and created a design for a new show that took this format and tuned it into a show that was extremely artist friendly and unique. We named it Artist Confidential.



The first artist was Don Henley. Unfortunately he had a cold and couldn’t perform…but he had no shortage of things to say. The uncensored forum didn’t hurt his rants one bit. The audience had the chance to ask questions…about anything (except the Eagles). We were onto something. Intelligent cerebral interview…audience of super fans…Interactive Q&A. Now—add the performance component and we may have a hit.



The booking continued with a performance being key—BUT—it could be workshop style rather than a traditional gig. Bonnie Raitt, Rush, Wynton Marsalis and dozens of others came aboard. Jamming…talking about the songs…interacting with the audience. Warm, smart, musical and intimate. The show was born.



Some of the most comical and interesting moments in my career have been around the signing of these Artist Confidential artists. Take Paul McCartney. This was HUGE. It started with Bill Porricelli…then Lee Eastman (both with his management). Didn’t really get much traction at first. Then we did Coldplay and in attendance was Mark Di Dia, the GM of Capitol. He was knocked out by the show. He suggested I reach out to Paddy Spinks, one of Paul’s insiders. Paddy’s an old acquaintance that I knew when he was with King Crimson. He reminded me of a drunken night in 1980 when he brought Robert Fripp to my house in Atlanta. Robert taught me a secret to his precision---practice with the lights off. It took two years to get Paul to do Artist Confidential, but we were on the fast track now. The ideal date for Paul was the afternoon he was playing DC. 4pm start and he HAD to be out by 5 for sound check (Its an hour show that is recorded and mixed for play about a month later). Now—Paul’s team is incredibly professional…but VERY VERY high maintenance….and standards. Then again, he IS a Beatle. No problem. But every day was a near catastrophic as we neared show date. They looked at EVERYTHING. 20 emails a day. Logistics Hell. Jayme Karp who handles the show’s logistics was going nuts. We all were. The night before the show, Paul’s swat team visited. Uh Oh!!! Show might be off! The chairs in the green room had leather! So we recruit a group of beefy interns to move out the leather and bring in the cloth. Piano is tuned…BUT we need a piano tuner on site just in case it goes out of tune…and it gets worse from there. We’re all kinda freaking…this show MUST go on.



It’s show date. Rainy. Miserable. Paul is arriving at Dulles Airport, about an hour drive from XM. It’s 3pm. No Paul. It’s 3:10. No Paul. It’s 3:20 and his road manager gets a call. Paul has arrived! But it’s 3:20—With the weather the way it is, he’ll arrive about 4:30. Sound check and he’ll go on at 4:55 and leave at 5. A 5 minute show??!!?? Then about 15 minutes later, a 9/11-ish blast of sirens engulfs the air. Roaring motorcycles zip up to XM. It’s Paul! A police escort. He arrives with time to spare! Despite warnings to give Paul his space and limit contact, he is the nicest person imaginable. Totally cool. He relaxes and does an amazing show. Writes a song on the spot to illustrate the songwriting process…pulls 4 people from the audience to jam with him. The audience was a mix of music students, VIP’s, Paul fans and just normal music freaks. IT WAS MAGIC. At the end of the show he thanks the engineers. He hugs Jayme…he takes plenty of photos and even compliments me on the British teacups I stole from my Wife as these were in his rider.

Total pro. One of the best shows ever.



Then there was Yusef Islam aka Cat Stevens. I was kind of expecting a crazed terrorist. This will be the first one on one he’s done with radio since the 70’s. We arranged a breakfast meeting to discuss the show. Hmmm….breakfast at a DC Power spot. Right move? Will he go into a rant? Man—was I wrong. Here was the perfect gentleman…who went on to do a classic Artist Confidential. A few weeks later he had that airplane incident. I was embarrassed for him. He was a wonderful guy. Brian Wilson was “interesting”…Rush had fans from Bolivia and Taiwan fly in---For an hour. To be 10 feet from their heroes. These aren’t radio “interviews”—but something infinitely more driven by intellect and music.



These things have no rules. Well, cell phones gotta be off. But that’s it. There COULD be a “stupid question” rule since we don’t want to dumb these down for mass consumption, but the audience is primarily music students and hard core fans…they are notoriously smart in their questioning. The performances are really a trip. Phil Collins brings in an 11 piece acoustic band…Judy Collins sits at the piano and tickles her way through her career…Willie Nelson brings his Son along to play…We even did Santana at our Jazz at Lincoln Center studio. A cosmic journey. Lincoln Center is kinda different because there are unions. The amalgamated lighting union to turn the lights on….plus it’s NYC where everything is just a touch crazier.



Artist Confidential is emerging as a trademark program for XM. It serves many purposes. It is organic and real—not one of those cheesy canned, edited and modified-to-fit-FM shows. It deals with timeless artists. All genres. All ages. The only real criteria is that they have a story to tell. That’s why we had Odetta…and Andrea Bocelli…and Rosanne Cash…and Trey Anastasio…and the list goes on. It’s about intellect and the artists’ career, present and future—NOT a promo piece for the new CD. We call it “complete” radio. In an era where the thinking is “Get a morning show, test the library and get up some billboards” is the game plan, we feel a radio station needs to be a complete experience. This show helps us get there.



We’ve expanded on the “Confidential” concept by adding ‘Classical Confidential’. Same basic show except it is hosted by Classical guru Martin Goldsmith instead of George Taylor Morris who ably handles Artist Confidential. Classical is a bit of a different World and Martin is clearly the man for that. Then of course there are more channel specific shows like LOFT SESSIONS that Mike Marrone and Kate Bradley put together for The Loft and literally dozens of other shows that are all original and ENGAGE artists on a cerebral and musical level.



Another show that helps us become more “complete” is THEN…AGAIN. Back in 1974 I saw Yes perform Close to the Edge, take an intermission, then perform Tales From Topographic Oceans. Depending on your point of view it was either a colossal bore or a sonic journey. Being a fan, it was a journey to another world. Brilliant. The thing that got me thinking was that “complete” albums performed live would be an amazing listening experience in terms of live music on radio. Traditionally, live sets are a mix of old and new with the anthems as the encore. THIS is something different and we try to be all about different. Along the way the BBC tried this and then Deep Purple performed Machine Head a few years ago. I thought this would be perfect XM concept. In studying the possibility it became obvious that most bands that created truly Classic Albums were either:



Not around anymore, or at least in a configuration that could re-create an early album
Can’t play all of the songs without extensive rehearsal.
Simply didn’t want to go to this space.


One artist told me “No way! This Album needs to rest-in-peace….besides, there’s no way that moment in time can be re-created”. Oddly enough that same artist slept on it and came back a week later with ‘well…I’ve been thinking, this Album is so powerful, it DESERVES to have a renaissance…”

So, we went out and talked to artists about this. The idea is that they can re-interpret the album in any way…re-invent it…re-arrange it. The only “rule” is that it needs to be the full album in exactly the same running order as it was on vinyl. We’ve done several in this series ranging from Cheap Trick at Budokhan to Dave Mason’s Alone Together. Jethro Tull’s Aqualung was especially cool, as was Pronounced by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Besides having NEW versions of Locomotive Breath and Free Bird to play, there’s something eerily magical about hearing the bands perform something so classic…today. AND—hearing the album in the SAME order as when you put it on a turntable 30 years ago…not to mention the joy of an audience hearing this from ten feet away. Except the Allman Brothers. They brought two semi’s worth of equipment so even the Grand Canyon couldn’t fit a crowd with that amount of gear.



The point is that radio needs to re-engage with artists. Radio shot itself in the foot in terms of “owning” artists. Information about artists…real compelling and different one-on-one relationships on the air that are actually interesting to the artist and the fans listening are something we are charged to bring back…on 2006 terms. Years ago, a Springsteen type may have gotten off the bus and headed to the local station to play a few tunes. No more…at least on most stations. I’m always amazed at how engagement with artists needs to be on radio terms instead of the artists’ terms. You know---Talk about the hits…hype the new CD. Yes, those are important ingredients in many cases…but like with everything, I think it’s necessary to think beyond the old school radio playbook. It’s all about careers ..not just hits. It’s all about engaging the artist not the new single. It’s all about RECOGNIZING that RADIO should “own” music, not print or TV…



It all gets down to COMPLETENESS. A complete listening experience…something that ONLY radio can deliver.

3 Comments:

At 11:06 PM, Anonymous Robert Johnson said...

Hey Lee,
Just a thought about the "Then Again" sessions: wouldn't it be cool to have digital quality (i.e. CD's) available for sale? I have no idea about the complicated logistics of realizing it. A hard copy of once in a lifetime re-CREATION! It could be great promotion for the artists (and XM).

 
At 2:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wish y'all would stop playing so much Genesis, Van Morrison and Peter Gabriel on Fine Tuning.

It's almost like you've got a deal with these guys...which would invalidate everything you've said about returning radio to its roots.

 
At 10:23 PM, Anonymous LumboVanSMiLE said...

This email is intended for Mr. Lee Abrams, however, since I can find no way of contacting him, I'll leave it here.
Thanks, Lumbo Van SMiLE

Mr Abrams,
A couple years back, it was my good fortune to be selected as one of the audiance members for the Atrtist Confidential Series / XM Presents Brian Wilson / 10/09/04 . At that time I did a little review of my experiance and posted it on Brian's board. I had wanted to send it to you as well, but the email address I was contacted with from XM, would not accept my reply. In any case, recently a few folks requested I re-send them that review and I thought I would once again attempt sending it to you. Here's hoping it reaches you and thanks again for the opportunity of a lifetime, I will cherish the memory always. Thank you, LumboVanSMiLE@aol.com

XM Satellite Radio, Artist Confidential Series / Brian Wilson, 10/09/04 Wash. D.C.:
After experiencing Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE on Friday evening at The Keswick Theater in Glenside Pa., it was more that a little difficult to wind down and get some sleep for the trip to DC the next morning, in fact, I was up until 5am, pondering what I had just witnessed and listening to my SMiLE CD while reading the concert program. I did eventually dose off for what seemed like a moment when I was startled by the ringing phone and a rap, rap, rapping at my chamber door. It was my trusty side kick Eddie, who, knowing me all to well, had prepared for a struggle to get me up and out the door, he brought coffee, God bless him :>) A half hour later we were on the road and two and half hours after that we were coming up on DC, I don’t remember much in-between, but as we approached our destination, there was some confusion as to which exit to take, just then I saw a sign that said “22-B Washington” , I told Ed to take it, it HAD to be right, 2-2-B, made perfect sense to me, TWO, TO BRIAN ! Sure enough, it was. Ed shook his head in disbelief, but dug the synchronicity of the moment. Minutes later we were pulling up to the XM building, an old imposing brick structure a city block square, that would have fit in perfectly as a backdrop in the first Batman movie. It and the surrounding area, reeked of post-industrial malaise, but apparently, these radio folks were in the midst of changing that and a few other things as well. The future and salvation of Radio? Perhaps, we shall see. We parked close by and as we walked up to the door, the line that had formed outside stared to file in, it was 12:45pm.
The moment we walked in the door, a friendly silver haired woman wearing a dark blue SMiLE T-shirt from the Euro-Tour, walked up to us, hand outstretched in greeting and said “Hi, I’m Bluebird, welcome, who are you?” This brought an instant smile to my face and the thought that, Brian had sent his emissaries to greet us, how cool, a gathering of the tribes. Many were represented, it was a small group, about thirty of us, but we had come from all over the east coast of the U.S. and even one travel weary pilgrim from England. Eyes darted back and forth, introductions were made and all present expressed their astonishment at being there. We all bristled with anticipation at what we were about to witness. The reception area had a very high ceiling, about two stories, at the top of which hung a Paper Mache satellite, with solar wings extended, about 15 feet long. It was an introduction to what we were about to see at the top of the elevators.
My attention was suddenly drawn away as the door opened behind us and with a gust of wind propelling them into the room came, Taylor, Probyn, Scott, Darian and the Sound Guy (sorry, don’t know his name), I said, “Here they are” and “Hey, it’s the sound guy!” (I’m a big fan) :>) they waved and said “Hi guys” as they headed for the elevator. It was 1:30pm.
Well, we had a while longer to wait, but the XM folks were nice people and those who needed to, were escorted up the elevator to use the facilities and freshen up after our long journeys. After returning to the reception area, it was explained to us that the band was doing a sound check and things were running a bit late, they apologized and promised it wouldn’t be much longer, I just smiled and said it could be Monday as far as I was concerned, I wasn’t going anywhere. A bit later, A young woman with a “I’M ALL BUISNESS” look on her face asked that we sign in and explained that, there were no bad seats, so we shouldn’t feel the need to rush the table as we did so (big laugh). We all signed in and were issued stick on labels identifying us as visitors and escorted to the elevators. While waiting there, we were all given a laminated pass, with Brian’s photo and the name and date of the event, a very nice souvenir I thought.
As the elevator doors opened a few flights up, I was greeted with an amazing sight, it was the main control room behind a ceiling high glass wall and it looked just like the bridge of the Enterprise from Star Trek! I said “What is this, the Enterprise?!?” Our XM guide said that, in fact they had some Star Trek people in to design it. This just gets better and better I thought to myself. From there it was a short walk down a hall to another reception area with chairs and couches, where we were asked to relax and wait just a bit longer. Someone asked if it would be less than 37 years, we were assured it would, it was 2:15pm. This gave us the opportunity to wonder around a bit and this XM Radio, is really a laboratory of cutting edge technology, from the main control room to the individual studios, each with a large window exposing the interiors and mixing consoles and individually identified with the show’s name and an exterior headphone listening post to check out what’s going on inside. It was an interesting diversion, but soon, our thoughts turned back to our real reason for being there.
Just as I thought our crowd was on the verge of a revolt, we were ushered down another hallway and into a small studio about 15’x30’ with 4 rows of white fold out chairs to our left and 10 or so more against the studio wall and a covered piano on our right. Behind us was another floor to ceiling glass wall and beyond that a mixing console with a few technicians, a camera on a u-shaped track automatically pivoted around the room about 8 feet above us as we all took our seats.
In front of us was a series of microphones, set up in a semicircle, with each end set about parallel with the front row of seats. Set center was a stool, obviously for Brian and behind that, the back wall was covered with some white draped material, lighted with different colored spots evoking the feel of the live stage set.
At this point it was apparent; we were about to be entertained by one of, if not the greatest, composers of contemporary popular music, in what amounted to the average LIVING ROOM! I think it’s fair to say that the 30 or so of us sitting in that studio were absolutely blown away at the prospect. I got chills.
As we settled in, a pudgy teddy bear like fellow with a salt & pepper main of shoulder length hair walked to the center of the room and introduced himself as Lee Abrahams
The Program Director of XM radio. He welcomed us, thanked us for our patience and explained the format of what was to follow. He said that XM Radio was adopting the HBO model of original programming and that the Confidential Artist Series, was becoming a popular format in the artist community, they had already had sessions with Phil Collins, Sting, Judy Collins and others and were expecting Paul Mc Cartney to participate some time in the near future. The event, he said, would be filmed for possible broadcast at some later date, but that the audio version would certainly be available on XM later this year. There would be four songs performed, a few questions to Brain from audience members, another four songs and then we would be ushered out to the hall while Brian was interviewed (apparently Brian was uncomfortable being interviewed in front of the audience), then, if Brian was up to it, we would have the opportunity to meet him briefly and get an autograph. We were encouraged to be vocal, loud and to enjoy ourselves. A nice vibe ensued.
Lee then introduced us to our host, resident DJ George Taylor Morris, and disappeared into the control room. Morris is obviously a big fan and seemed as excited as we were to be able to host Brian Wilson at XM. He said that of all the artists that had been there or may be there in the future, to be able to have Brian there was just unbelievably special and he was amazed at his own good fortune. He went over the ground rules once more, picked the audience members who would ask the questions and then, the band was introduced.
Brian’s apostles filed into the room through the same door we had come through, to a standing O’ from all of us and took their positions at the microphones. From left to right, they were, Jim on bongos (kneeling), Darian on xylophone, Scott on vibes, Nelson on hubcap, and general percussion (way scaled down from his stage set), Probyn on acoustic guitar, Paul on sax, Bob on electric bass (apparently plugged directly into the board), Taylor (seated) on vocals & assorted vegetables, Nick on acoustic guitar and hat with attitude and Jeffrey (seated) on vocals, witty comebacks and baggy shirt. Oh and of course EVERYBODY on vocals.
Once they were set, our host introduced “The one and only Brian Wilson!” , we went nuts as Brian jogged into the room like Rocky, with his arms raised over his head waving his hands. He shuffled up to his stool, then passed it and ran right into the back wall, then turned to look at us, with a big grin on his face. That pretty much broke the ice and Brian took his place on his stool between Paul and Bob, while we were cracking up over his antics. Brian seemed relaxed and in good spirits, he wore a long sleeve powder blue button down shirt over dark blue jogging pants with white stripes down the sides and sneakers. As he settled in he thanked us for attending and said “This is the first song I ever wrote” and with that, they launched into “Surfer Girl”.
The mix was mildly amplified, with Brian’s vocals a bit lower in volume than the others, but most of the sound came from the natural ambiance in the room, you could actually hear the band take their breaths as they sang the harmonies and what harmonies!
Now you may say, yeah, I’ve heard that one a million times, but, I’m here to tell you, sitting in a room in the midst of ten vocalists, of the caliber of these people, singing Surfer Girl with Brian on lead, IS A WHOLE OTHER THING! MY GOD! The harmonies were nothing short of Angelic!
After Surfer Girl, I was ready to say thank you and drive back to Philadelphia, BUT Nooooooooooo! There was more! MUCH more. Brian then announced that he had a new granddaughter and that Wendy had just had a little girl, ohhhs and awhhhs all around and a few of us offered our congratulations. He then said this next one is for her and the band sang “Wendy”, now I could say this after every song, but honestly folks, you just had to be there, Taylor & Jeffery’s falsettos were an absolute joy to the human ear, hearing them up close and personal in that room.
Now on this next bit (and correct me if I’m wrong you guys) Brian began by saying “On this next song, we have angelic voices” “OK, angelic voices, here we go” and we were treated to “Please Let Me Wonder” and folks, the big guy was right! :>)
Of all the songs I thought I might hear that day, this next one was a complete surprise, but believe it or not, the next tune was an unplugged version of “Hero’s & Villains” can you DIG that? All those voices, overlapping harmonies, complex figures, performed PERFECTLY, without benefit of any masking instrumentation. PURE WILSON, unfiltered, right from the tap.
At this point, had they not taken a break, I think my head would have exploded, but fortunately it was time for the questions from the audience. Bluebird wanted to know if Brian sang in the shower and you’ll all be relived to know the answer is in fact YES! :>) I think it was Donna who asked what Brian’s favorite Vegetable was, to which a smiling Brian replied “Carrots, definitely carrots, yeah!” Next was a Van Dyke query, did Brian give VDP the thymes for the lyrics. Brian answered rather flatly, “He did the lyrics I did the music”, now from all I’ve read, it always seemed to me to be more of a collaborative effort, basically VDP building his lyrics around conversations he would have with Brian about their collective philosophies, but, there you have it. No doubt we could have an entire thread just on this answer, but, let’s move on. :>) Finally, Brian was asked what he thought his brothers might think of the completed SMiLE and his return to touring, to which he replied, “I think they would be proud, I think they would be happy about it” (my apologies if I missed anyone)
Part two of the music segment began with “Vegetables” and it was hilarious watching Nelson come up with all sorts of wacky sounds from his hubcap to whistles to whatever else he had in his bag of tricks and somehow Taylor produced from out of nowhere a red and green pepper and began to play them as if they were maracas, funny stuff and everyone had a smile plastered on their face.
“Add some Music” followed and was like a warm breeze blowing in from the ocean, which was the perfect set up for, no wait for it, I couldn’t believe it myself, but yes , there it was, played on duel guitars, the opening strains to “California Girls”, the only thing missing was the sand. Oh man, I’m reliving it typing this. Wow! We all stood up and applauded at the end.
Next, Brian asked Jeffrey “Where’s your favorite place to go on vacation?” Jeff smiled and said “Hawaii”, to which Brian replied “Well alright then, let’s sing about it!” and they sure did. The final number was “And your Dream comes true” and for all of us sitting in that studio a truer line was never spoken. We all burst into applause at the end and Brian said “And that concludes our program, thank you” a bunch of us called back “Thank YOU Brian!” and we applauded wildly as he and the band exited the studio right through the center of us. I was exhausted.
Morris, then asked us to line up along the studio corridor and said that after he conducted his interview, Brian would sign an autograph for each of us. We were lead out of the studio and into a long hallway, but as we passed what must have been a dressing room on our right, Brian was standing in the doorway, kind of peeking at us as we filled by. He had the door half opened and was sort of poking his head out, then ducking back in, he reminded me of a curious child too shy to say hello. Or, maybe he was thinking, “when are they gonna get outa here?” Take your pick, I opt for the former. :>)
We waited in that corridor for about 45 minutes and saw all the band members leave through a back door one by one, at which point I thought, well, that’s it, he’s not gonna do this alone, maybe he changed his mind, but then we saw Brian at the end of the hall with one of the XM staff and they lead him off down another hallway opposite us. Apparently it was a big loop around and they sat him at a small table at the front of our line. One by one we all had a moment with Brian and he signed an autograph for everyone who was there.
When my chance came, all I had was my XM pass, but that was cool, a very nice souvenir as I said. As I stood over him and watched him sign my pass I thanked him for hanging around to sign, he didn’t look up, and in one motion as I spoke I stuck out my hand to shake his, as I looked down I noticed for the first time that he had a pen in both hands and I realized immediately he must being doing that so he didn’t have to stop to shake all those hands, maybe it made him nervous I thought, so quickly I tried to draw my hand back while saying “Sorry Bri…..” but I didn’t get it all out, because he reached out with his left hand and grabbed mine to shake it and said “It’s cool man” with a big smile. I said ”Thanks man, it’s great to meet you” The funny thing was, as I stood there something puzzled me, I had seen Brian walk out of the Keswick the night before and he literally TOWERED over everyone around him, yet sitting there at that table, he looked almost diminutive, it was the oddest thing and I really can’t explain it.
Anyway, my time was up and I moved out into the waiting area where everyone was showing off their autographs, on SMiLE CDs, Magazines, Records, all kinds of stuff, I flipped! “Where did you guys get that stuff?” I asked and they said they brought it with them, “But they said not to bring anything!” I protested! And I think it was Jim Murphy who said “And you listened to them?” DOOOOOHHHHH! Ya big dummy, I thought to myself, we all had a good laugh on that one.
It was time to head back, but there was one more surprise waiting as I walked out of XM Radio into the afternoon sun, just as I opened the door and stepped outside a beautiful shinny black Caddy Escalade drove slowly past the door and who was ridding shotgun? Well, non other than Mr. Beach boy himself, one Brian Wilson. Cool, I thought to myself, Brian’s stylin’…..and ladies and gentleman,,,,,that concludes our program :>)
L&M………LVS…………………………………………………………………………...

 

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