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Save The Music!?? And A Lesson On Related Goods…

May 29th, 2009 · 19 Comments
Econ 101 · Music Biz · Policy

(A very dear friend of mine said that he hoped I was being ironic with the title of this post, since he is so sick of the cliche. I told him that a. the default with me should be to assume there is some sort of sarcasm or snark present, and b. if I was being serious there would be no question marks. Duh.)

Welcome to the longest blog post ever- hopefully it will keep you occupied in terms of weekend reading.

As an economist who really likes music, I am perfectly well aware that the music industry really doesn’t know what to do with itself nowadays. There’s a lot more competition among record labels than there used to be, there are artists flooding the market with free stuff (and listeners figuring out how to get stuff for free even when it’s not offered as such), and there’s a whole host of entrepreneurs looking to create new distribution channels (see Pandora, Jango, GarageBand, OurStage, StereoFame and so on). In addition to all of this, it may just be the case that people are less engaged with music than they used to be, probably because there are so many other entertainment outlets available. All of this is causing the recording industry to dig in its heels and try to hold onto whatever semblance of normalcy it can find, since psychologically people and organizations feel pretty much entitled to their status quo level of profit and are reluctant to accept anything that feels to them as a loss, regardless of what the cause of that loss (increased competition, paradigm shift, stupidity, whatever) might be.

I introduce to you the Performance Rights Act, or the “performance tax” as it is referred to by its opponents. You can find the actual wording of the proposed bill in the House here and the one in the Senate here. I do not recommend trying to read them, since they reference other laws that are not explicitly stated and you will end up chasing down a paper trail that is more than you bargained for. (You can also see the resolutions against the issue here and here, but they aren’t all that insightful.) I will summarize the main points for you, as I understand them at least:

  • The “performance tax” is not actually a tax, it’s a royalty to be paid to the artist/label of the recorded work being broadcast. A tax would be if the money was going to the government, which it is not. The term “performance tax” seems to be a bit of propaganda cooked up by opponents of the bill. (This is not to say that the opponents are not justified in their view, but let’s call a spade a spade. You can see the opposition’s take on the issue here, but it’s not exactly objective.)
  • Radio broadcasters (and entities that play recorded music on the Internet, etc.) already pay royalties to the songwriters and studio performers (the “originators” of a song, if you will) through organizations such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers), BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) and SESAC (Society of European Stage Authors & Composers, which apparently is no longer limited to European artists). The new fee to be charged would be on top of this.
  • There is already regulation in place to collect a performance fee for other forms of distribution (Internet, etc.) but “terrestrial broadcasts” were originally exempted. The new legislation is essentially worded such that the exemption is removed. Note that this doesn’t require a royalty to be paid, it just gives that right to the musicians/labels. (In other words, if the labels don’t want to bite the hand that supposedly feeds them, they can choose not to.)
  • The existing legislation is found in United States Code/Title 17/Chapter 1/Section 114, “Scope of exclusive rights in sound recordings”. (I am now convinced that absolutely anything can be found on the Internet.) Basically, an annual royalty fee is negotiated for each broadcast entity rather than being charged per listener or per song or whatever.
  • The proposed legislation makes exceptions for smaller broadcasters, religious stations, etc. by limiting the maximum amount that they could be required to pay. ($5,000 for broadcasters with less than $1,250,000 in gross revenues, for example)

Okay, let’s pretend that it’s the first day of Econ 101. When economists talk about demand, we acknowledge the fact that markets are interrelated and goods don’t exist in their own little worlds. We introduce the concept of substitutes- products that are consumed in place of each other, and complements- products that are consumed together. Put more concretely, Coke and Pepsi are substitutes while peanut butter and jelly are complements. In nerd terms, we have the following rules:

  • When the price of a good goes up, demand for substitutes goes up. (Think: When Coke gets more expensive, the demand for Pepsi goes up.)
  • When the price of a good goes up, demand for complements goes down. (Think: When peanut butter gets more expensive, demand for jelly goes down.)

Now let’s think about how this relates to the music industry. If you listen to the recording companies, what they really care about is the sale of recorded media (i.e. CDs) and concert tickets. (and merchandise, technically, but let’s focus) So we have some relationships:

  • Free mp3’s and CDs: probably substitutes since you get the mp3 and then don’t need the CD anymore. (Cover art is nice, but not that nice.) One of my HBS professors would disagree, however, and wrote about it back in 2003-2004. He and his colleague find no evidence that the existence of Napster and similar systems had a significant negative impact on CD sales. I would take this finding with a grain of salt, since lack of evidence doesn’t technically prove that a relationship isn’t there.
  • CDs and concert tickets: probably complements since listening to (and liking) the CD makes you want to see a band in concert. It’s not like people think “you know, I would go to that concert, but I am going to sit on the couch and listen to the CD instead because it’s here.”
  • Free mp3’s and concert tickets: probably complements, as an extension to the above. (This is part of why bands are willing to give music away for free, since free is the ultimate lowering of price, unless of course you are going to pay people to take your stuff. Hmmm…)
  • Internet radio and concert tickets: probably complements
  • Broadcast radio and concert tickets: probably complements
  • Internet radio and CDs: I don’t think this one is clear, especially since one can make a perfect copy of a digital stream if one is persistent and nerdy enough. (Or so I’m told. I really should look into this…er, I mean, go buy stuff on iTunes.) Maybe people listen to Pandora rather than to their iPods, or maybe they listen to Pandora to find new things to put on their iPods. I think the jury is still out on this one.
  • Broadcast radio and CDs: This one is also not clear, but it’s certainly more to the complement side of the spectrum than the preceeding case. I think we are past the days of people trying to record stuff off of the radio, especially since I would guess that the share of radio listening that is confined to cars has gone up in recent years. (Who listens to a regular radio at home anymore?) Add in the availability of iPhone apps such as Shazam, which make it easy to tag music on the radio and then purchase it on iTunes, and it seems a bit unreasonable that an increase in radio availability would have a negative effect on CD sales (or vice versa).

Since broadcast radio is free by design (a public good in econ speak), it doesn’t really make sense to think about the complement relationship in terms of price changes, but it is fair to say that with complements, less consumption of one good should lead to decreased consumption of the other.

Now let’s think about the radio industry. It’s actually pretty complicated- it’s a form of a two-sided market, since it relies on listeners to to get advertisers. Furthermore, it relies on content (read, music) to get listeners. Is your head spinning yet? Luckily, the fundamental supply and demand relationship is between the broadcasters and the advertisers, since it’s the advertising space that is the real product being sold and paid for. As the price of advertising goes up, more ad space is supplied, both because it’s worth it for an individual station to reserve more time for ads and also due to the fact that more stations find it profitable to enter the market.

So what would happen if this new royalty were imposed? In our Econ 101 classes we were taught how to think about the effect of a per unit tax. This fee is different, since it is essentially another fixed cost that the station will have to put up with. Economists will tell you that fixed costs don’t affect how much of something is produced, but they do affect whether a company stays in business in the long term. Therefore, it is possible that the fee could push some broadcasters across the line from profitable to not profitable and cause them to either exit the industry altogether or switch to a different format. IF (and this is arguably a bif if) the broadcasters aren’t forced out of business, the royalty represents a pure transfer of value from the broadcasters to the artists and/or labels. (The RIAA is the main proponent of this bill, in case you were curious. And I can hear your lack of shock from here.)

Based on the above argument, it would be unwise for the recording industry to push anything that would greatly decrease the availability of broadcast radio, since that is still in large part where people learn about new artists and music. But the labels do face a tradeoff- the revenue from the royalty versus the decrease in revenue from CDs, concert tickets, etc. The royalties, if you take the $5000 cap for stations with less than $1,250,000 in revenue as representative, seem like relative pocket change, and one should not underestimate the value of keeping the broadcasters happy.

The resolution supporting broadcast radio states the following as justification:

  • Whereas the United States enjoys broadcasting and sound recording industries that are the envy of the world, due to the symbiotic relationship that has existed among these industries for many decades;
  • Whereas, for more than 80 years, Congress has rejected repeated calls by the recording industry to impose a performance fee on local radio stations for simply playing music on the radio and upsetting the mutually beneficial relationship between local radio and the recording industry;
  • Whereas local radio stations provide free publicity and promotion to the recording industry and performers of music in the form of radio air play, interviews with performers, introduction of new performers, concert promotions, and publicity that promotes the sale of music, concert tickets, ring tones, music videos, and associated merchandise;
  • Whereas Congress found that ‘‘the sale of many sound recordings and the careers of many performers benefited considerably from airplay and other promotional activities provided by both noncommercial and advertiser-supported, free over-the-air broadcasting’’;
  • Whereas local radio broadcasters provide tens of thousands of hours of essential local news and weather information during times of national emergencies and natural disasters, such as September 11th and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, as well as public affairs programming, sports, and hundreds of millions of dollars of time for public service announcements and local fund raising efforts for worthy charitable causes, all of which are jeopardized if local radio stations are forced to divert revenues to pay for a new performance fee;
  • Whereas there are many thousands of local radio stations that will suffer severe economic hardship if any new performance fee is imposed, as will many other small businesses that play music including bars, restaurants, retail establishments, sports and other entertainment venues, shopping centers, and transportation facilities;
  • and Whereas the hardship that would result from a new performance fee would hurt American businesses, and ultimately the American consumers who rely on local radio for news, weather, and entertainment, and such a performance fee is not justified when the current system has produced the most prolific and innovative broadcasting, music, and sound recording industries in the world…

It’s interesting to note that several of these items refer to benefits of broadcast radio that accrue to the public rather than to the recording industry. Perhaps in that case, if we’re going to make a fairness argument here, the government should be providing some compensation to partially cover the cost of the royalty. What, an economist just used the s word? You heard right…the benefits to the public of broadcast radio are technically a positive externality, and the government can increase well-being by subsidizing things that generate positive externalities. The current royalty exemption that is in place is a form of subsidy for the broadcasters, but why should the recording industry have to effectively pay all of that subsidy?

My suggestion: If you (as the musician/label, or the government if you think the labels are being too short-sighted) are going to impose a royalty, keep the royalty rates low, i.e. lower than for other forms of distribution, to respect the benefits that broadcast radio confers on the music industry while still respecting the rights of the intellectual property owners. If you (as the government) are that worried about radio stations going under, give them a bit of a subsidy (or tax break, whatever) to respect the benefits to the public that they provide. You will notice a general theme of “give credit where credit is due.”

At the very least, can we play nicely here? No “performance tax” propoganda please- it’s very misleading, and I am seriously annoyed that I almost fell for it. (I first learned of the issue from an ad on the radio- WBOS if you are curious. The ad then led me to, which gives, not shockingly, a very one-sided view of the matter.)

If you are interested in reading more about this issue, here are some links to get you started: – clearly this is biased to the “no performance tax” side – this is a pretty well thought-out piece on how the bill would make the industry fairer, though I’m not quite sure that I agree that technology has “shattered” the link between radio and music sales – it sure seems like the opposition to the bill is louder, if the news coverage is any indication

What are your thoughts on the matter?

Tags: Econ 101 · Music Biz · Policy

19 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dele // May 30, 2009 at 8:05 am

    Interesting. Great insight on the issue; yea, maybe I listen to too much and have my ear often plugged to my Zune.

    Understandably, public radio serve some good, but, by how much? Maybe taxes of this sort might force them to move with the times.

  • 2 Ken Underwood // May 30, 2009 at 12:04 pm

    The “s” is for shocking. The same argument could have been made for the telegraph industry almost a hundred years ago. Telegraphs served the public good…what is this thing called “radio” anyway?! Let’s don’t subsidize dinosaurs, please. You agree that no one listens to radio in their homes. In 5-10 years, the same will be said for cars. Subsidies will only delay the inevitable (think GM) and retard innovation. Radio is great, but the good folks there better have a plan to adapt or they’re going to be gone tomorrow. So, let’s give them a hand up, not a hand out. Here’s a tip…it’s called STREAMING.

  • 3 stephie c. // May 30, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Wow, Jodi, I love your blog! Awesome stuff. I’m surprised you didn’t mention MySpace. For a long time, artists could only upload as many as 5 tracks to their page, but they ramped that up to an unlimited amount sometime last year. And what’s even more interesting is that artists are actually doing it! And really big artists, too, like Ben Folds and John Mayer and Maroon 5.

    The thing about MySpace, though–and OurStage and GarageBand and all those other pages where the artists *themselves* are the ones that are doing the uploading–is that I’m not sure how many listeners are out there. It’s one thing to run a search for Mieka Pauley on and see what comes up, or type in Katy Perry on Pandora and find new artists (although why anyone would ever want to listen to Katy Perry or artists that are similar to her is beyond me) but it’s very unlikely that millions of people are going to the Singer/Songwriter channel on OurStage and listening for the sake of listening. In my experience, the people who listen on OurStage/GarageBand are either a) the artists themselves, to see what the competition is like b) friends/family that the artist forces to listen to the page c) people who are bored at work and are only half-paying attention to the name of the artist or where they’re from. Of course, I could be wrong. And I think Pandora is the exception, because the whole point of the website is to find new music that one might be interested in. If I just wanted to listen to music, I would turn on my iTunes library–I go to Pandora with the specific intention of listening to people I’ve never heard before. But with the other sites that have more of a competition-feel, like OurStage and GarageBand….I’d be curious to know how many CDs those artists are selling to people who just happened upon them–or even how many people are intrigued enough to look those artists up on MySpace to hear more.

  • 4 econgirl // May 30, 2009 at 4:07 pm

    I *heart* my readers- you are all very insightful. I suppose I didn’t mean to imply that I myself think that radio stations are valuable enough to the public to be given special treatment, more that IF policymakers decide that the stations are serving the public good then they should give consideration, otherwise not. In either case, they shouldn’t expect the recording industry to essentially pick up the whole tab for incentivizing production of a public good.

    See, policy answers are rarely clear cut, but asking the right questions and considering the right issues are a good start. 🙂

  • 5 econgirl // May 30, 2009 at 4:42 pm

    @ stephie: You forgot d) marketing coordinators for said artists. 🙂 (not that I would know, of course) From what I can tell, your suspicions are right- the developers of these sites want them to be places where people can easily discover new music, but I doubt that they are succeeding in that on a large scale. (Stereofame tries to address this problem by giving ponts that are redeemable for stuff when you listen and rate music. I am curious as to whether this makes listening feel like work.) I think they are realizing the same issue that a lot of online retailers face- that it’s easy to find what you want on the Internet, but less easy to browse and happen upon something that you didn’t know that you wanted. I doubt that the radio programming is going anywhere until there is a true substitute, but the method of delivery seems to be shifting at least.

  • 6 Josh F // May 31, 2009 at 3:01 pm

    I think the biggest problem is the big music production companies no longer have a reason to exist. They originally existed to produce a physical product (both through studio production and through making the music medium) but production is now easy for a skilled independent, and there is no need for a physical product. Their other justification for existence was as a gatekeeper to find talent for us, but frankly the evidence shows they suck at this and have moved to a model of controlling and pushing product rather than truly finding great products. Their true power lies in control of distribution–even now. They are desperately clinging to this. Myspace is a great example of something that was once a very open forum now having big contracts with big music to push their product and downplay indies. Performance taxes are okay if they go to the artist.

  • 7 keubs // Jun 1, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    I’ve upset some close friends voicing my opinions on this matter before. We had a pretty heated discussion about this on my blog here –> I’ll one of my comments below, because I’m excited to see if others share my opinion on the matter.

    I’m really glad to see you guys debating the topic, because it needs to be discussed a lot more. It becomes a belief system argument to me, much like abortion. To me, there’s nothing morally wrong, or inherently illegal about downloading music, because you never hear the artists who need the money, or on the brink of success complain. Only the immensely successful artists, or the labels, or the RIAA. That’s just not good enough for me.

    Also, It upsets me that people consider this theft. To me, theft isn’t the act of duplicating one item into another so both people own it. Theft, or stealing something to me has always been described as the transfer of ownership from one party to another, and in the process one person obtains an object while the other loses their ownership of that exact object. I can’t give you a solid example in the past where people were able to make exact duplicates of something so efficiently easily as we are able to do with computers. It’s a 100% new experience, so let’s quit trying to define it using the same vocabulary as things in th past. This isn’t theft, it’s duplication. Should that be illegal? Is it immoral? Well now we’re back to square one.

    One thing is for certain, the record labels made a mistake. They were too big to fail, and much too big to change. Music has never been about the amount of discs on your shelf, it’s not something you can grab onto with your hands. Music isn’t a commodity, it’s an experience. When we die, we can give our iTunes library to our kids, but we can’t give them the goosebumps we got when we listened to the songs. So, let’s quit thinking we can sell it like jewelery, and see if there is a way we can sell it at all. It was a special time when we would buy a CD without knowing a single thing about it, and be completely blown away by it. But nowadays it’s different. It was our human nature to become more and more efficient and we’ve officially streamlined the way we own music. No longer will people buy the entire “Hit me Baby One More Time” CD for two fucking tracks. That was a deadweight loss that record companies got away with for far, far, far, too long. If they want to stay relevant, there’s still time to change, but it’s going away fast.

  • 8 Josh F // Jun 1, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    I agree regarding free downloading (though I have personally never done it). There needs to be a huge paradigm shift regarding the concept of intellectual property for economists and policy makers. Even if you buy the theoretical arguments in favor of tight intellectual property control, the fact is that the world has changed and as a practical matter it is like theoretical arguments for abstinence or “just say no” to drug programs. It does not fit the practical nature of the world today and the ways in which information can be exchanged, which will only expand and accelerate.

    Also, I agree that the theoretical economic argument for preserving those rights is weak. There are many scenarios and models where social welfare would be maximized by free sharing of information.

  • 9 Mele // Jun 2, 2009 at 1:12 pm

    Keubs, I can’t completely agree with you on your definition of theft. Making a duplicate of something (e.g. plagiarism in a term paper) is still considered theft. The idea is that if you create something, be it intellectual property or not, you want to be compensated in some way by the person who wants it or a copy of it. This is why the U.S. is a capitalist nation, or at least it used to be. Though your points about the record labels are quite true. We have reached a point with technology where media never have to physically exist. Movies, music, books, etc. all can remain digital as they are transfered between our various storage devises while we enjoy them at our convenience. The sales tax alone that will be lost as this continues will be massive. As Josh F said, “There needs to be a huge paradigm shift…”

  • 10 VD // Jun 5, 2009 at 7:01 pm

    I love that September 11th is invoked to justify a royalty hike. The RIAA is shameless. Their hypocrisy knows no bounds.

  • 11 Krzysztof Wiszniewski // Jun 12, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    Regarding the performance royalty issue, I think it is best viewed as a simple business transaction.

    The radio stations’ business model is fairly straightforward: they are a content distributor (sorry for that, the Internet is getting to me) whose aim is to attract the largest possible audience in order to provide an attractive advertising platform. Traditionally, they’ve done it mostly by playing music.

    So far so good. In order to have music to play (since they don’t produce any), they must obtain a public performance license from the copyright holders (the record labels). Normally, this costs money. However, music on the radio can be seen as a form of advertising for the recordings (sold by the labels). The existing legislation takes this into account and deems that the advertising benefits received by the labels fully compensate them for granting the public performance licenses. So, terrestial radio does not pay royalties. Upon a time, this worked fine.

    Fast forward into the XXI century. The business of selling recordings is plummeting. Furthermore, new channels of music discovery have opened up. It is no longer clear whether radio still confers the aforementioned advertising benefits and whether the original transaction seen by the legislator remains equitable, especially since performance royalties are now being paid by the other music discovery channels. This at least merits a review of the law.

    I live in Europe, where broadcasters have been paying performance royalties for years and this does not seem to have damaged their business noticeably. On the other hand, watching major broadcasting networks pleading poverty is almost as endearing as reading YouTube’s statements over the same issue. The bottom line is that music radio needs recorded music to continue to exist. Whether the recording industry still needs radio is an open question. The current legislation forces music producers to accept terms in a business transaction, that may not reflect the true state of the market.

    As for the public benefits of radio, it is a dangerous argument to raise by any business and one easily challenged by anyone wishing to explore just how much public-mindedness there is in that business’s mission statement (and its execution). Public service, I feel, is best left to public entities. A business wishing to provide public service should acknowledge that financing such services is its own responsibility.

    Love the blog, by the way, Jodi. You’ve just got yourself another subscriber. 🙂

  • 12 Rev. Pfloyd // Jun 13, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    I probably hiss the loudest of any person when the “S” word is offered. I agree with the one comment above that we don’t need to subsidize dinosaurs (and I’d argue, subsidize anything). I think the real dying dinosaur here is the RIAA and the record labels themselves. When I started out as a musician, a recording contract seemed to be the Holy Grail, now it’s more akin to being shackled to a yoke. Personally, unless you are one of the few who get the Big Break, there really isn’t any benefit to a musician getting on a major label anymore; technology is liberating us like never before. At some point, the Cartwright Union had to shut down the office for good, automobiles were here to stay.

    Subsidizing radio stations will encourage their behavior, in my opinion. If the RIAA won’t consider the mutual benefit they receive (and have received) from radio airplay, then allow them to cut off their own lifeline and hasten the decomposition of the radio industry. Getting the government involved will only unsettle the natural progress. And really, anything that will hasten the disintegration of an organization that takes 12-year-old girls to court is a-okay with me.

  • 13 SteveO // Jun 17, 2009 at 12:52 am

    Have enjoyed the EDIWM concept, and have just now begun reading some of your thoughts. (I hope my requested sticker is in the mail)

    I like your line of thought in general, but like some others, disagree with your jumped-to conclusion of subsidizing something simply because it is a positive externality. Steven Landsburg gets carried away with this line of reasoning. He get’s pretty fast and loose with the old subsidize pos-exts six shooter.

    There is not only an economic positive/normative issue to policy decisions, there is always a moral one. Keep in mind Robert Nozick’s “Utility Monster”. Just because something creates more utility, or pos-exts, is not on its face a reason to break the moral boundary of individuals (micro).

    (I will say I think this is a common flaw that comes from HBS- while also admitting I can only afford a lesser institution, so what do I know?)

    As long as taxpayers are on the hook, knock off all that subsidizing. Public choice theory is the domain that reminds us that agents in DC should behave properly with other people’s money.

    Outside of the tax subsidizing aspect (and the elephant in the room, the FCC and government “letting” people “own” the concept of a numerical electromagnetic frequency) and looking only at the commercial world- I don’t care what the record companies or artists do. It’s their decision and they can learn their lessons quickly, slowly, painfully, or however they choose.

    One thing you didn’t mention; at least as most recording contracts stand now, artists generally make the money from concert tours while getting almost nothing from album sales, while the record companies make their money on albums and not the tours.

    So there is a bit of conflict between artist and company as to weighing concerts vs. album sales.

    One thing I suggested years ago was this, in order to buy a concert ticket, you would have to present a ticket which is only inserted in the CD. (Or some related scheme; present the ticket and get XX dollars of the concert ticket price; or attend the concert at full price and receive a CD [Prince did this]. The point being some mechanism which would strongly link the purchase of album and concert tickets- putting the artist and company on the same side of the table.)

  • 14 Krzysztof Wiszniewski // Jun 18, 2009 at 6:18 pm

    Not wishing to derail the discussion, I feel it necessary to point out that artists on labels DO make a fair amount of money from record sales.

    The reason this is largely ignored is that this money comes in the form of advances, or “advance royalties”. A record label pays an artist an up-front sum for a contractual obligation to record exclusively for that record label. This sum (along with the recording budget and certain other costs) is then recouped by the label from the artist’s royalties.

    The reason most artists do not receive any royalty payments from their recordings is that these do not sell enough copies to recoup the advance. This does not mean that the artist receives no money. If the company exercises an option for a follow-up album (i.e. requires the artist to record it), the artist will receive a further advance – which will also be recouped etc. etc. etc.

    It is an interesting comment for the “My Research Might Be More Relevant Than I Thought… ” post, since it closely mirrors the situation of the experimental group. The artists are viewing unpaid royalties as “lost money” without considering the advance they had already received.

  • 15 Dmitri // Jul 12, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    I agree with some of the above posts with regards to the RIAA and its depiction. It’s largely supported by the ‘big four’ record labels (representing substantial market share) who seem to increasingly pursue their lawsuits strategy. The labels won’t be able to stop illegal downloading, but they can adopt a more effective e-business model. As far as the radio is concerned, I would argue against subsidies as more consumers shift towards mp3 players, smart phones and other products which make the radio more or less obsolete (is it next to go after the newspaper?)

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