What does it mean to be a musician in the digital age? How can you take advantage of popular platforms to get your music heard by more people?
In this episode of The New Music Industry, I talk to Michael Sloane, Co-Founder of Streaming Promotions. We get into everything from opportunities artists are missing all the way to how we’re all information marketers.
- 00:42 – What is your background?
- 07:16 – Creative pursuits are weird
- 08:02 – What opportunities are musicians missing in streaming?
- 10:40 – Music distribution is not an issue anymore
- 11:19 – Opportunities that can come from music streaming
- 12:33 – How does Streaming Promotions help artists get their music heard by more people?
- 16:36 – Inbox overload
- 19:33 – Who is Streaming Promotions for?
- 21:02 – You can still reach your career goals
- 22:30 – Everything is about the story
- 23:27 – What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced to this point?
- 25:04 – What have been your greatest victories to this point?
- 26:43 – Are there any books or resources that have helped you on your journey?
- 27:52 – We’re all information marketers
- 30:36 – 90-day goals
- 31:08 – Conduit to growth
David Andrew Wiebe: Today I’m chatting with CEO of Streaming Promotions, Michael Sloane. How are you today, Michael?
Michael Sloane: Doing great. How are you?
David Andrew Wiebe: I’m good. Thanks. Thank you for asking. I would love for you to talk a little bit about your background in digital strategy, in e-commerce optimization. What did you learn from your work and how has that influenced your direction since?
Michael Sloane: Oh, that’s a good question. I really started my pursuit of the music industry in 1996. I came to Belmont University, initially, with the thoughts of being perhaps an artist, which was thwarted very quickly. And then decided it would be maybe a better use of my talents to work on the business side. I really thought I was going to get an A&R in the publishing side of things. Got freaked out, left Nashville, got a degree in finance from the University of Kentucky, worked in banking as a loan analyst for three years prior to coming back and getting my MBA at Belmont and getting some jobs in publishing only to get fired.
And then, I realized that I was better, more on the technology side, which fortunately for me, is really where the industry has gone. First job was with a company called Echo Music, which was an early web development and fan club company back when the only portal to an artist was really their website. We grew to six when we ended. Got acquired by Ticketmaster. That wasn’t a very good fit personality wise for the team. Like the executive the executive team there didn’t really jive too well with corporate leadership so I got a job over at Live Nation which have just launched Live Nation Artists Group and 360 deals. Got to work with some pretty notable artists there. Kenny Chesney, Zac Brown band, Cheech and Chong, the Gaither vocal band. I mean on the roster we also had AC DC and the stones and some other really large artists but in that 360 deal was really able to see the ins and outs of the workings of the industry and how things were changing and monetization of you know, real core artists or real core fans there. What’s a dedicated fan willing to spend on a Rolling Stones coffee table book if they know there’s only 500 of them? That kind of thing.
Still got to see the ticketing side of things as well. Ticketmaster and Live Nation merged. And all those companies went away. I started my own firm called Strategic Blend in 2000. I guess that was 2009. And just began to experiment in social media, which was kind of new at the time or for a while we were actually optimizing Myspace pages, but still building websites. And then just figuring out how best to market to fans digitally there for about three years and then sold my interest to my business partner when I got an opportunity to go work with a little artist named Taylor Swift. And so, I joined her digital team and really ran all digital projects. A lot of the eCommerce pieces there were trying to integrate with Amazon, very early days of you know, get direct to fan shipments there. Really build her in entire eCommerce presence on Amazon retail space. And it went really well.
From that, I flipped over to the to the label side, to Big Machine label group. They had obviously Taylor but also Florida, Georgia was breaking at the time, Thomas Rhett. They had Tim McGraw and let’s see, Rascal Flatts, are some other large artists. We had 13 artists when I started and 36 when I departed. I really departed over my vision of where consumption services were going. 1989 had been released by Taylor and the CEO of the label. Pulled all of her music off of the streaming services in an attempt to sell more records. That worked perfectly. He also pulled the music off of the streaming services for Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore, who I thought both needed exposures. So, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with either of those artists, but I thought they still needed to be able to be seen and discovered by fans that were new to those artists.
I thought that Spotify was the future of the industry as far as the way artists will ultimately distribute their music but also get paid from those master recordings, and really just kind of pulled a suicide by cop. “You’re wrong.” “No, you’re wrong.” “Okay, cool. You’re fired.” “I know. I’m packing my stuff.” So, I was able to, you know, kind of parlay that into some conversations with Spotify. I think they appreciated my bravado. I was able to have some conversations with them early when Ken Parks was still running Spotify North America. Steve’s a vocalist there. He kind of run all artists, I guess artists services, or I guess he’s the head of music technically.
We learned kind of the ins and outs of how things were working. Streaming Promotions for the longest time was really more of a side hustle for me. I was managing some artists and still doing digital strategy with other artists and some in some brands. But I met a guy named Charles Alexander who had not only found a way into the Spotify curated playlist, but also found ways into these user generated playlists that had some traction on the platform and was working in managing a couple of artists.
I said, “Maybe we can do this for a lot of people. I think there’s definitely a need there.” And really just worked with him to help start to build out what now is Streaming Promotions. Charles left in August, about at that time, and since then, we’ve really focused in. I guess for about the last year and a half on this user generated playlist, you know, how we’re best trying to trigger the algorithms of discover weekly, release radar, daily moods. Spotify, as mentioned, they’re going to release as many as another 200 to 250 algorithmic lists this year. We’re just trying to position ourselves as best we can to take advantage of these algorithms but also the playlist on the platform that that are created by users that have lots of traction and can help us really trigger the mathematical equations that they get our clients in front of an audience. That’s a long way to go to tell you how I got here but all that stuff. It’s been a crazy 15 years.
David Andrew Wiebe: No kidding. No, thank you for sharing that. I think there’s quite a bit of relatability to what you said. Like, I started my life mainly interested in visual art. That transitioned into music. And then eventually, I found my passion in business and writing, which is kind of where I’m at now, but they sort of overlapped in a way and I’m still in music, but I do so little visual art at this point. I don’t have a lot of time for that.
Michael Sloane: Creative pursuits are weird that way. I mean, I went totally left brain for a while and just did the finance thing but I was still going to shows every weekend and trying to find my way onto a stage or somewhere into the hearts of someone that would let me help them out.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, totally. So, I mean, there’s so many paths we could go down based on what you just said. But I think this is something that I must cover because it’s something that my audiences are surely wondering. There are many musicians out there that wish they could go back to the days of digital downloads because of how little revenue streaming tends to generate for them. So, what opportunities are they missing? What are your thoughts on what’s happening in the world of streaming right now?
Michael Sloane: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that the industry was so long predicated on the idea that you would, you know, it was a monetary transaction. I gave you 99 cents and I got a download. Or I gave you $15 and I got a record. The mechanicals of all that worked very well because the monetary breakdowns were pretty straightforward. I look at streaming as an annuity, right? Like it’s a long-term payout so if you’ve got a hit, you’re set for a long time as opposed to the old days where, if I had a hit, it was purchased. There was a monetary breakdown on the back end that whatever the value of the master recording was and that was it. You really kind of ping that transaction early on as opposed to with streaming and consumption, you’re able to do it for a long tail.
I teach a class at Belmont. I often say like, “If you told me that I could buy the Beatles catalogue for $250 million 10 years ago, I would have told you to go fly kite, but if you told me I could buy it for a billion dollars today, I’d probably do it.” Because it’s going to be you know, month over month that those streams are going to happen.
Transaction, again, it is predicated on having a hit. But if you have that hit, and you have an audience and you have somebody that’s got to go back to those tracks time and time and time again, you know, it’s mailbox money where back in the olden days, after your album had run its course, that was the extent of that money. That’s the reason publishing was such a big deal because you had radio airplay that continue to pay off. But streaming being somewhere a blend between radio and purchase, and they’re being paid off on every play. I think it’s a good spot.
Now, the issue is that there’s such a lower barrier to entry to the marketplace. There used to be a huge week in the recorded industry space. Ten years ago, it was 250 records in a week, and that would be somewhere around typically Black Friday. Now, we’re in an environment where there’s 20,000 tracks that are uploaded to DSPs every day. It’s just a lot more noise and really, you know, that’s kind of why I see there being such a need for something like Streaming Promotions because we’re in a place where we’re really trying to grow audience organically and naturally, but you’re just in competition with so many digital tracks.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, music distribution is definitely not a problem anymore.
Michael Sloane: Certainly not. Yeah. I mean, you used to choose your deal based on what label had the best relationships with the distributors. Can I get an end cap that, you know, Sam Goody’s are… Tower Records and what label is going to leverage me the best opportunity to have those? And now, we’re all worried about how can I get on, you know, new music Friday or today’s top hits. And that shelf space is limited too but there’s just so much more music out there available. Getting to Spotify curators, which I’m sure we’ll talk about a little bit, is just more difficult than it ever has been. So, there’s no way they can listen to 20,000 tracks a day.
David Andrew Wiebe: I think definitely one of the opportunities I see is sort of like what you said with mailbox money is that passive revenue stream. So, that’s certainly appealing to musicians, but I’d imagine too that if you got enough streams and enough attention that you can also get booked for better shows and better opportunities, right?
Michael Sloane: Yeah. Our goal with Streaming Promotions, in fact, in the onboarding of every client or even prior to taking client on, one of my first questions is what are your goals? If your goal is to see a million streams next to the title track of your song, we’re not the fit. There’s a lot of ways that you can somewhat illegally trump up and make things look good. Are you trying to grow an audience? Is it to get a publishing deal? Is it to get a label deal? Are you trying to get an agent? Are you trying to get on a better tour? Are you trying to grow true audience and fans? There’s just so many different ways that you can monetize your career that have something to do with streaming, but it’s not the sole focus. We’re really big on, you know, what are your goals here? What are we trying to accomplish? Where do you see your career going? How can we leverage streaming to be the conduit to your audience?
David Andrew Wiebe: You’ve certainly hinted at a few different things here but I’m sure listeners would love to know how do you help artists specifically get their music heard by more people?
Michael Sloane: Yeah. I mean, so are our campaigns are pretty straightforward. It’s really easy, first, to tell you what we are not. We’re not going to pay to get your songs placed on playlists. We are not going to pay for bots to just trump up a bunch of numbers, next year song title and get stream counts for the sake of stream counts. We aren’t working with anyone that’s doing paid collaborative or paid consulting. We’re, I mean, truly are as honest as we can and going out to people who are fans of music, who are curating playlists that have a large, not just follower account, but a large active fan base to that playlist that are generating streams. And so, our goal there is to up your monthly listener number. We see the monthly listener number as kind of the holy grail number. I’m not worried about a million streams. But if you’ve got 100,000 monthly listeners, that’s an impressive number. And if you can show that the trajectory is going upward, it will trigger the algorithms. So, our goal really is to grow your monthly listener count and trigger the algorithms. The algorithms are just bucket of content that are going to individualised users based on their listening habits.
In an ideal campaign, I want the Discover Weekly playlist to, one, if it hasn’t picked you up, to pick you up to put you in a good place for release radar on the next release of your music to start showing up in some of the daily mood lists. And I want to see growth on all those things because those are things that you can’t buy, even if you wanted to, can’t buy your way into. And it’s what’s going to grow audience of people that enjoy that type of music and like-minded music. Our goal is really to try to get, you know, on a three-month campaign, we’re hoping to get 12 to 15 ads on user generated playlist that will trigger the algorithms, which will hopefully continue to grow your audience base.
I often say that we get left at the starting line. So, we’ll work campaign for three months, things will start to get traction. We’re like, “All right, well set you adrift and off they go.” And all of a sudden, you’re seeing, you know, month over month 20%, 30%, 40% gains in Discover Weekly adoption. That’s wonderful. I love those stories. I would love to obviously stay on and be there at the finish line, whatever that looks like but we’re happy to be there from the ground floor and just start to get the momentum going.
We also come on with larger artists and major label artists that have a lot of traction that realise that they aren’t doing anything in the user generated playlist space and just need some help. We also deal with things that have been on release radar for two or three weeks. They know that it’s going to come off. They know that Spotify is going to eventually pull those tracks from those Spotify lists and we need to be there to help cushion the fall so that they don’t lose much on the monthly listener count.
I should also mention, we don’t pitch to Spotify curated playlists. With the adoption of the artist portal and being able to submit direct to Spotify, it’s just not worth it. We have relationships with those people. I know those people, but I’m not going to hit them up on behalf of our clients. It’s just, again 20,000 tracks a day. I heard someone once say that Allie Hagan Dorf got 1000 emails in an hour while someone was at lunch with her. Were just part of the no way in that scenario. They would much rather hear from artists and people that someone that has ownership in the master and probably from the artists directly or management. My goal truly is like, how do I get around the gatekeepers and just work with user generated lists and grow the numbers there.
David Andrew Wiebe: I think it’s incredibly refreshing what you just said, the fact that it’s not all automated and that there is a human touch too to what you’re doing.
And to your point of like too many emails. Like, I get this all the time. I can’t actually keep up with my email list of press releases and podcast requests and feature requests. It’s sort of endless. I’m developing a different system around that so it doesn’t become that. But like, of course, if they don’t even mention my name in the email, or if there’s no ask at the end of the email, I pretty much ignore it.
Michael Sloane: What are the actionable items here? All right, I’m moving on. No, I mean, you know, the inbox overload is certainly a thing for, I’m sure everybody in this day and age, but certainly with those Spotify curators, I mean, I know John Marks personally and John Butler, who are both here in Nashville, and it’s just unmanageable. It’s a lot of meetings, and a lot of drinks, and a lot of going out for those guys. And they’re, you know, bombarded publicly wherever they are. So, you know, “Hey, here’s a CD or here’s a link to my music, please go listen to it.” There are only so many hours of the day so.
And if we’re looking at those people on the Spotify end as gatekeepers, and we have access to these algorithmic lists that are robotically driven, mathematically driven, I would’ve triggered those things all day long and not have to worry about a human… It’s back to the old paradigm of radio, right? Like, I don’t have to worry about a programme director that’s going to like my music. Is there a way I can grow audience around that person if I don’t have a relationship with them? And so, we’re trying to be the conduit to those other relationships.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, and that ecosystem, I won’t say it’s gone but it’s changing very quickly because of the lack of the barriers to entry. You know, submitting your music to music blogs or trying to get on to a podcast, whatever it is, these days, it’s like people are so overloaded with that type of request now that it’s really challenging for musicians to get attention that way.
Michael Sloane: Sure. I mean, it’s harder than ever for anybody to get attention in really any medium because as everything, as there’s been convergence from a technology standpoint, you’re in competition with YouTube and Instagram and social medias and podcasts and you know, Netflix. I mean, there’s just so many options of ways that people can spend their entertainment time. Music being one of those. But you know, music is kind of in its own silo. You listen to the radio or you went and bought an album or you bought something on iTunes. It was at least somewhat ancillary now with everything being on your phone 24 hours a day. I was watching YouTube, and then I went to Netflix, and then I flipped over to Spotify, and then I swiped around on Instagram for two hours. And so, it’s all kind of converged into how are we spending our entertainment time. Why would I spend it with you? What are you giving me as a differentiator? What’s with 20,000 tracks a day? It’s hard to be different.
David Andrew Wiebe: Well said. So, who is Streaming Promotions for? Is it for independent artists? Is it for signed artist? Is it for pretty much anybody?
Michael Sloane: We’ve tried to build it so that it’s flexible to anyone. I would say 40% of our clients are signed in some way shape or form. Kind of have more of a major label or major indie label kind of feel to them. Another 20% have a full team and have things going on. I’d say probably the rest are independent musicians, DIY folks but we always try to work with people that have teams around them, understand that we’re not going to be the silver bullet. I can’t make you make you famous. But with us and some press and a social media strategy and some planning and understanding that you know, it does cost money to promote your music, with that understanding we’re in a place you know, we can work with a team and come in and be part of a team. I’m a very specific widget and a much more complex machine that’s become the music industry. So, we do one thing. I feel like we do it really well. But you know, I’m not trying to work Apple Music or YouTube Music or Amazon Music or Pandora. We’re just working Spotify and Spotify only to try to grow audience. So, if that is a need, we can certainly be there to help service that need. Hopefully, in conjunction with some other folks.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, like having helped some independent musicians with a couple of marketing campaigns whether it was crowdfunding or getting on the radio or boosting Facebook likes, what I found out is still if you’re well organised and you plan it well, it’s totally possible to reach some of your goals even now, even with all the crazy stuff that’s going on, and like you said, all the distraction that’s going on.
Michael Sloane: Yeah, as long as you have some goal in mind and your expectations are reasonable and you don’t think you’re going to become Chance the Rapper overnight, you know, which was, you know, to a certain extent DIY, but then he also had major label radio promotion team around it when it got to a certain point. So, it can be done. It just that your expectation has to be somewhat… and it’s going to take time. So, you know, you’re not going to grow from zero to 10 million streams over a weekend. You really got to kind of lean into that and what’s feeding it and how are you best structured to make it work.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah. And that was basically like the same thing with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, as I understand it, they also had some support behind them to make it happen.
Michael Sloane: Oh, yeah. It’s a great story. It makes for a wonderful story.
David Andrew Wiebe: It does.
Michael Sloane: But, you know, typically, the recording industry is great with stories. But you’re not winning Grammys without a team behind you, I assure you.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah. I mean, there is sort of a teaching point to that, in that if you’re going to do any kind of PR type campaign, you should find an angle. You can’t just say, “Oh, we’re coming with a new album and we’re touring, you know.”
Michael Sloane: Everything’s about the story. Even with our really indie clients that we have on our end of the clients that we’re working with. What’s your story? What’s the press? What’s happening around you? It doesn’t even necessarily have to be 100% true. It could be a little bit mystical, but give us something to go with because you know, some of these independent curators are just as interested in the story or something to differentiate you as they are the music, so it certainly helps.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah. I was just thinking of the author world for a second with James Frey, and all the controversy that went around that, but I really don’t think that hurt sales if any.
Michael Sloane: I assure you, it didn’t.
David Andrew Wiebe: Too funny. Kind of turning to a little more the business side or a personal side, what are some of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced at this point?
Michael Sloane: I mean, it’s always a challenge to you know, we had some folks on board in the past that would oversell what our capabilities were, or there would be miscommunication. Honestly, everything is possible through proper communication as long as we’re in a place where you know, myself or my sales team is properly conveying what our capabilities are and what the expectations should be. You know, we’re in a good spot. If those wires ever get crossed, or if someone ever just doesn’t hear what we’re saying or chooses to hear something else, that’s always the most difficult part. Business is easy. People are difficult.
David Andrew Wiebe: No, I totally get that. Client relationships, right. Whether that’s invoicing and communicating expectations and setting timelines. Totally, that is not the easiest thing.
Michael Sloane: And we’re really mindful of, you know, is this person getting it? Is their communication back and forth? Are they happy? We’re mindful of that and usually a little bit concerned about anything that goes even slightly sideways. I mean, in this industry, you are your reputation. I want to be known for running a proper shop that’s doing things on the up and up and not participating in any type of payola and being honest and being genuine. We try to take on clients that are after the same thing, either themselves or looking for that in fans.
David Andrew Wiebe: On the other side of that, what have been your greatest victories to this point?
Michael Sloane: Oh man, it’s little victories. We get stoked about little wins, triggering an algorithm for a client that we’ve been grinding it out with for two or three months. I mean, those are fun. I mean, obviously getting bigger clients are certainly exciting. I won’t name names but name notable artists that come to us and they’re like, “Hey, we understand exactly what you do. That’s exactly what we need. Let’s get going.” Those relationships are a lot of fun one. One, they’re gratifying because typically, it’s someone that I’ve met in the industry or there’s a personal relationship there. But yeah, it’s the little stuff in big names. I think that’s always it.
David Andrew Wiebe: Well, yeah, I think as a company doing what you’re doing, it’s always nice to have sort of recommendations, endorsement, testimonials, or even just big artists working with you. That alone can make the difference in sharing your message out to more people.
Michael Sloane: Getting a deal with a major label or major indie label or a band that’s on one of those is always a big high five in the office. But I mean, at the end of the day, our biggest victories are just like, “Hey, we got that artists that we didn’t think we were going to be able to get over the line, you know, triggered, discover weekly, and now they’re doing X number of spins per day or per week.” That’s growing real organic audience and people are discovering that artist and hopefully that’s enough to continue to grind out on their monthly list or number.
David Andrew Wiebe: I like that. Are there any books or resources that have helped you on your journey?
Michael Sloane: Oh, man. Now you’re dipping into my professorial. Now, I mean, I love the Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. There’s a book called Made a Stick that’s really like wax on ideas, work and other ideas fail that actually teach on. I’ve got a textbook that I use for my class, which is outdated. No, I mean, I read a lot. I wouldn’t say that there’s anything that I’m just like, that’s the thing. I try to just take all of it and put it in the blender and try to make sense of the world around me. Especially with the change that has happened in the last five years, I think it’s really important to read up and get us instantly because we’re marketing brands at this point. I mean, that’s what it is, right? We’re all trying to create some piece of creative content that we can then brand and build and build not. Oh, Tribe is a good book too. That we can build an audience around, right? How do I get people to be interested in my stuff, and not just the one thing but the next thing that’s coming and the three things that are coming after that, and why are they going to come back for more of it?
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, I mean, you might even be trite to say it at this point. But we’re all information marketers, right.
Michael Sloane: I mean, absolutely. I often tell my class at Belmont. I appreciate that what you’re creating or what you want to create is art, but it doesn’t matter if it’s art or a tube of toothpaste. At some point, you’ve got an audience around it and have somebody want it and go purchase it.
David Andrew Wiebe: That’s right. And building that audience often does revolve around just blog posts, podcast episodes, videos.
Michael Sloane: Yeah. Well, I mean, music has the same issue now that bloggers had or content creators had 10 years ago. If you look at Perez Hilton when he was doing three posts a day then he went to 15 posts a day because I’ve already read that so now, I’m going to go to TMZ or, you know, whatever salacious outlet was putting out content at the time. So, music now has the same issue, right. “Oh, I can work two years on a 12-song album. And then I’ll wait two years to put out another album that doesn’t work.” I mean, I need content again the next you know, three months or six to eight weeks or whatever that looks like for me.
It’s also difficult from a creator because some people just aren’t that prolific. It’s difficult to write a song and record a song but it’s the same issue. We’re all having that same issue is how do you continue to put out music? Early days of Streaming Promotions, we kind of modelled our framework after what we saw Drake doing about three years ago, which was an EP every three months. He would release an EP and his monthly discernible count would go up and then it would kind of flatline over a couple weeks. And right before he starts to dip, he released another EP, and it would shoot back up again.
Chainsmokers was another. Chainsmokers was putting out a single or a remix every 21 to 28 days and their monthly listener number just never levelled out. It just kept climbing and kept growing. Now, depending on what you think about Chainsmokers, some of that was derivative itself, and they’re not doing that anymore. It’s hard to create at that rate.
David Andrew Wiebe: Oh, yeah, it really is. I think you’re sort of hinting at the fact too that some artists are perfectionist. Some artists want the sound to be a certain way. We’re not in those days anymore, but like bands like Boston who spent three years, five years, six years crafting.
Michael Sloane: Right. I mean, we’re just not going to hear like, another album like Pet Sounds. If somebody is going to get to a place and just be like, “It’s good enough. Put it out.” Then no one’s going to go back and do the sixth overdub. It’s just not going to happen. There’s a demand for the content. It’s imperative to the artists to feed his or her audience.
David Andrew Wiebe: Yeah, “just ship it” as it were. Something I often share with my community too, is just, those 90 day goals are so important and good to have, whether it’s launching a new product, creating a new content channel, going on a new social media channel, whatever it is, you choose having those 90 day goals can help you really propel things forward. It’s not too long of a goal, and it’s not too short of a goal. It’s kind of just right.
Michael Sloane: Sure! You can see the finish line. It gives you some actionable items. Sure.
David Andrew Wiebe: Exactly. Well, thank you so much for your time and generosity, Michael. Is there anything else I should have asked?
Michael Sloane: I don’t know. I can’t think of anything that should have been asked. I mean, honestly, our goal is just to really be there as a conduit to growth and really focusing on that monthly listener number and trying to grow it as large as possible. That’s us.
David Andrew Wiebe: Fantastic. Well, thanks for joining me today.
Michael Sloane: Yeah, absolutely.
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