Louis Black: Our First Interview

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This particular interview came at the perfect time. The world of the Austin DAZE was weighing heavy on our shoulders. On the drive to the Chronicle office, we were contemplating and arguing about the usefulness of our efforts. It was a messy scene to say the least. This meeting had been arranged in advance, so we followed through with it. I am grateful that we did. That said, Louis Black is the editor of a little Austin paper you may have heard about called The Austin Chronicle. It is the most widely read weekly publication in this town, so chances are you have seen it. We followed him back to a meeting room and we were nervous as hell. This guy is one of the creators of this paper and he is also at the helm of this great ship. I was not sure what this experience would be like. I mean, we also run a paper. We are on a significantly smaller scale and our diehard staff can be counted on one hand, but in some small and twisted way, we are competition. Maybe you could liken the feeling I had following Mr. Black to the meeting room to that of David getting his first up-close glimpse of Goliath. It was not menacing, just mysterious. There are folks in this fine town that do not care for the Chronicle for this reason or that. The Austin Daze found it necessary to confront this beacon and find out if these negative stereotypes existed in reality. Armed with a handheld tape recorder and a sheet full of questions we entered the room. If anything, it would be an entertaining piece for our 50th issue. Let me start off by saying the Chronicle is not some evil empire. If there are negative things at work in the paper it is not by premeditated means. This is a small operation that got huge. It is hard to follow through with everything when there is so much to do. For those of you that subscribe to the notion that the Chronicle operates under a conspiracy to list and reviews only those artists that are on their “magic list,’ said list does not exist. The amount of stuff they receive is mountainous. I have a hard time keeping up with all the folks that send me stuff. I can’t even fathom the pile of cd’s and invitations they get every week. It all boils down to tenacity. Keep sending your stuff in. Sooner or later it will get heard.Louis changed our direction that day by telling us that he reads the DAZE and the details of the Chronicle history. The trials and tribulations that we experience are suppose to happen. They were not alwaze the top dogs. It was the tenacity and the love of the creation that kept them afloat for the first number of years. Now they are 20+ years into it. This really gave us a great feeling of confidence to press onward.

The beautiful thing about the Chronicle is that you can tell them exactly how you feel and get direct answers to specific questions you may have. I think that is the measure of a good company; when the average Joe can still communicate with the folks at the controls. That is community. This paper is an effort by and for Austin. You gotta love anything that supports this great oasis called Austin. We figured that the Austin DAZE is not a competition but a creative supplement. Thank you Louis. Enjoy these words:

Interview by Russ and Wendy
Transcribed by Lucretia, Wendy, Russ, Jblunt.and Sandy

AD: Have you heard of the Austin Daze?

LB: Yeah, sure, I read it all the time. Whenever I can find it, I read it. I like it a lot. I don’t think most people understand how hard it is and how much passion you have to have for what you’re doing and people project all these attitudes on you and if you don’t really absolutely care about the paper and the community, you’re not going to do it.

AD: We have been at this paper for five years and I have noticed about twenty publications come and go over that period. I think that is a consuming occupation and that once these upstarts get a taste of that, they give up. If you do a paper, you don’t do much else. There has to be a drive beyond capitalism. I feel a sense of pride with every issue release. What are your feelings about this?

LB: There was never a sense of capitalism. I never expected to make money with this paper. I never expected to stay at this paper. I love papers. I love reading. I read all the papers in town … whenever I can find them. I don’t go out as much as I used to, so I don’t see them as much as I used to but uh, when we started the paper there was a real sense of mission. I really truly never thought I would be here twenty years later and when we started the paper we started an Austin community paper like this (holding up the DAZE) and the first year was horrible. There were not a lot of publications coming and going because between the Texan and the Statesman there wasn’t any advertising and the consensus was that if you started a publication you were doomed. And in the early days, we actually had a lot of advertising in our first couple of months from people who figured that we wouldn’t be around so they wouldn’t have to pay for it. And so they would place adds thinking “Hey, we’ll never have to pay for it.” So the first year was truly one of the worst years of my life. I used to swear I would never look back on it fondly because it was such a horrible experience. When you don’t have money you end up using up people. And by using people, I don’t mean it in some Machiavellian (sense of) using up people but just everybody was getting used up and some people survived and some people didn’t survive. So it was really brutal and it was a real sense, once we got into it, of total commitment to it. Although the second year, six people were (a) kinda core group that started it, but immediately there were other people around.

Margaret Moser was involved, she wasn’t one of the six, but she was involved immediately. Outside of the few years that she was out of town, she has been involved with the paper ever since. So it wasn’t just come and go, but there were lots of people who came and went. Then there were people who came for an issue or two and some people will promise you everything and then they disappear. You know what I’m talking about. We tried to give it away, literally sell it or give it away. We really felt a sense of community responsibility that this wasn’t ours. It was for the community and we really wanted to get it out. There was just blood everywhere and a lot of people stopped talking to each other or worse. It was not pretty and we were bi-weekly, which seems like a luxury schedule now, but then it was just eating us up. It’s in your head all the time, you know, and there is nothing else. I’ll be honest, I was a screw-up my whole life. I was slightly dyslexic and I have real attention issues and I’ve never done well in school. You know, I was a disappointment to everybody. I could tell you stories forever. When I came to Austin, I started as a graduate English student. I was terrible and I hated it. Then I became a graduate film student. For the first time in my life, I was a star because I’d been watching films since I was thirteen and loved film. One of my best friends when I was growing up was Leonard Maltin, who’s on Entertainment Tonight, does those TV movies, books and writes a lot on film. We met in 9th grade and we started going to see movies. We weren’t art tourists. We didn’t go see the great directors or the great foreign films, we only saw some of those but, we mostly saw programs, you know, like every Laurel and Hardy film but lots of B movies. So when I started as a film student, I had actually seen stuff nobody else had seen and tons of it. Like lots of silent movies because we were outside of New York and so I was a star. One reason I decided to get involved with the paper was that my social life was great for the first time ever for like three years and I thought hey, this is a great way to meet new people, well women. Within a few months, my entire life was the Austin Chronicle and everything else went away. I dropped out of school eventually and I wasn’t seeing anybody. I was consumed by the paper and so we tried to give it away and we brought somebody in as a publisher who we hoped would either find money or take it over. And in dealing with that person, Nick Barbaro and I realized that nobody else really understood the paper but us. Nick was one of the six core people and is pretty much the driving force behind the paper. I realized that although we were not getting along that both of us had exactly the same vision for this paper, which was crucial.

I look at some publications and I feel like there is no soul or no heart. And then I look at publications that have soul and they have a harder time getting advertising. The ones without soul are not going to be around because if you’re not making money right away, it’s taking too long. If you don’t love it, you’re not going to stick at it. I was lucky I was used to failing. I had failed my whole life. I disappointed everybody in my whole life. So the horrible days of the paper were exactly what I expected. The people I feel sorry for are people who are golden, who succeed at things when they are young.

Because at some point, you’re going to hit a rough spot and I’ve seen it take people out and that’s it The rough spots were home to me, it was the easy spots that made me nervous.

AD: What was the force that made it work and how long did it take for you to realize that it was going to work?

LB: The beginning of the third year was when we understood that we were going to be doing this and that we weren’t going to be leaving any time soon and that this was our paper. So there was a certain amount of clarity there. It was about nine years into it before it finally began to do well economically, which is a huge factor. We always paid everybody (which is) what we said we were going to do. But we didn’t pay the top rates. I used to worry about that all the time, but Nick never worried about money. We are just different people. My stomach would always be torn up. I would go home every Friday freaking out ’cause I wasn’t sure I would be there on Monday. I would be depressed the whole time and it probably got better after six or seven years. We started in ’81 and by ’90 is the first year I remember feeling comfortable. We went weekly in ’88 and that was brutal because you go every other week and then you go weekly and you’re busting your ass and you’re printing it out every week and you don’t get a reward.

You get to the point that you are so consumed with the paper that (when) someone asks you what is going on in Austin, I would say I have no idea what is going on in Austin ’cause I’ve got to deal with the paper. You know hopefully, people who work for me know what is going on in Austin. It was a weird evolution and when you look back, you can look back at these papers we did, and hopefully they make you proud and you contributed something to the community. I honestly never expected to make money from the paper, even after I knew I was going to be there for a while. I had no skill sets, I mean that seriously. I can’t draw, I’m tone deaf, I have miserable handwriting, I was never an athlete, I can’t spell and I don’t know the rules of grammar. Yeah, literally, I mean, my spelling is better now than it’s ever been but it’s still awful. I will periodically still get a seventh grade English book and read how you’re supposed to use commas. I still have never gotten it right. I’ve never understood clauses. When I started the paper, I was thirty-one years old. (Then) I’m thirty-seven and thirty-eight and the paper is still not making it. If the paper was going to go like this, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t even know if I wanted to do the paper. I spent a lot of time really depressed because if this thing goes down, what is going to happen? And there was so much tension and it was so crazy, it was probably uglier than it had to be for a lot of different reasons but it was weird. And like Nick and I went through long periods where we just wanted to kill each other, tried to kill each other but, not really that much tried but wanted to, and so it wasn’t until about 1990 that it began to do well.

AD: When you started the paper how big was your staff?

LB: There were the six people on the editorial board and five or six on top of that. Only one was salaried. All I got paid for in the beginning was for writing, so for the first full year I made like $1,500. And I had no family money. So (what) if I got sick. It was really spooky. But gradually we always added staff. We always got a little bit better. I remember being really mad at Margaret Moser one time for some reason or another because she was doing marketing or something and she was also our most popular writer at this time. I was complaining to someone about her. They said, “Well, you’re only paying her like $35 a week” and this is in in 82 or 83, I mean, this is not the 40’s and this was nothing. So we were always paying people, but the money wasn’t great. But I always had this sense of moral purpose far in excess to what I probably should have. I never felt like people were doing me a favor by working for the Chronicle, but they were lucky to be along on this journey. Writers would come in and most of them were bad writers. I don’t remember a good writer ever doing this and saying you just don’t pay enough. Not people who were journeyman writers. And that’s a rare find, the good writers, the inspired writers, the wonderful writers. I don’t remember one of them ever doing that. So the 90’s were when we were really able to pay people and relax a little and begin adding benefits and to begin paying salaries that they could live on rather than having to get a second job. By 91, 92, 93 we had vacation, and medical plans you know, and that was great to offer that.

AD: Did you ever borrow any money?

LB: We borrowed money from the bank a couple of times.

AD: Was it worth borrowing the money?

Probably, at the time we did, but I don’t remember why we borrowed it and I don’t remember paying it back being a big issue. What turned out to be really weird is that Nick and I are both like hippies, kinda, you know. But we had a great head for business and part of that was understanding that if you don’t have any money, you don’t spend it, which sounds easy but it’s not. So many times people came to us and said that something only cost ten dollars, and you know we don’t have any money. I want to do this and it cost 25 dollars and then again, we don’t have any money. Both Nick and I never spent a dollar before its time. We never spent a dollar we didn’t have. I’ve met people who got a lot of investment money and started paying for nice furniture. Not only did we not, but Nick was crazy. We had a chair that was falling apart. People would throw it out and Nick would go get it out of the dumpster and paste it back together. You can still look around. I mean, its not like we have ever put money into furniture, we would rather put it into people. So we were lucky that it turned out that we had a head for business. It really took a long time and it was brutal, you know. Its that sense that you really love your paper and this product, you know this paper that you’ve finished with and that (is) serving the community and I mean, you guys, we’ve become this monolith and its weird because I don’t know who I am anymore.

AD: It’s like the paper takes on an identity of its own.

LB: You stop being real. Most people who work here don’t even know who Nick and I are, which is fine, but you become unreal. I mean, I’ve read lots of horrible things about myself, which is fine. But you’re serving the community and you really believe in what you’re doing. I really believe in publications like yours, because we can’t do everything.

Not only can’t we do everything, but it’s important for a paper like ours to have stuff that is in opposition to us. I mean that aggressively covers things that we don’t cover. I’m not saying we don’t care about some things, its just that we can’t cover everything. So I get excited when I see good new publications. I get depressed when I see a bad publication. I like your publication because you do good interviews and you really want to hear what the person has to say, which is why I agreed to do this. And its fun to read and there are others that I read that are not fun to read. Its bad writing or it’s very self indulgent, or its interviews with friends talking to friends. I think in general the culture is so alive and there is so much to cover. Dozens of publications can’t cover it. And in this town particularly there is just so much going on. We have more editorial staff than most of other papers our size. We go to this annual convention of the weeklies and we used to feel, how (do we compete) with all these cool papers? And now we go and it’s depressing ’cause most of them suck. Most of them started making money and instead of spending it on getting better, some dropped political coverage because they thought it was alienating advertisers. We spend ours on staff, but as much staff as we have, it doesn’t compare to what’s going on in this town.
AD: Why do you think there are so many artists, activists and creative people in this town?

LB: Austin has always been, from when I first showed up, just an amazing place in terms of music and in terms of other things, but not as amazing as it is now. A lot of people despair over where Austin is. And believe me, if you came to me right now and said that most of the money is going to go away but you can be in Austin 25 years from now, I would say sure, in a second.
There are a lot of things I loved about it. There was a period of time when I first moved here that I thought I was in paradise. I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I was smart enough ’cause when I moved here I was in my late twenties. I grew up outside New York City. I’ve lived in Boston. I’ve lived all through New England. When I came here I knew what it was. It wasn’t like I took it for granted. I knew this was incredible and it was just wonderful. It was easy to get around and it was cheap. There were unbelievable things going on.

AD: Do you still feel it’s that way in a sense?

LB: Whenever I start to take it for granted is when I leave town and come back. Yeah, there’s not other places like it. I don’t go to a lot of places and think, “Gee, if I was young I would move there.” I would love to live in Portland or Seattle for little while. There are some places I would like to live just to check them out, but I love Austin. And there’s no place that I know of where it’s not only a well rounded creative community, but a creative community where so many different people talk to each other. Where film makers and musicians and artists all know each other and hang out with each other. And you know one of the things that really defines the Austin Film Community which is unique and wonderful is there are other places that have documentary filming community and stuff like that but there’s no place where everybody knows everybody. You know, where the people that make films for Hollywood know the documentary filmmakers, who know the animation people, who know the experimental filmmakers. They all know each other. It means that a shocking amount of them know each other and support each other. I certainly participated in this when I was younger and I understand it. But one thing that drives me a little crazy is the attitude of the up and coming filmmakers and musicians towards the establishment that we are somehow the enemy, that we’re excluding them, that SXSW is somehow excluding them and stuff like that.

AD: Yeah, did you read our question with Linklater and that was kinda a cool thing he said in return?
LB: You know I love Rick and Rick is one of the reasons this town is what it is, and I think Rick is an amazing person and Rick could have said, “Yeah, they suck” and I would have been fine with that. Instead I thought, as usual, what he did was give a thoughtful answer and he is an incredibly thoughtful person. I read that. You know, when 7000 bands apply, and even though there are 1300 playing, some are going to get turned down.

AD: It makes you look at yourself and whatever endeavor you’re doing with that kind of answer because everyone is going to be excluded at some point regardless ok maybe you’re the top dog in Austin but when you go somewhere else you might be excluded because that’s not what’s going on and so its like a good healthy way of looking at it in a sense. The most important thing I got from what he was saying is that they need to keep trying; they just have to have tenacity.

LB: We were like you guys, you know. There was nothing different. We had no inside track. We had no special knowledge. We didn’t know we were going to survive. We lived in shitty apartments. We had no money and no cars. We used to get food on trays and I would walk to the Chronicle because I lived a block away. I would take the cold cuts we had had for lunch that day and take it home and add soy sauce and cook it up. And I would take the cold cuts and I mean you live off that.

AD: And if you can live through those things to get to what you really want to do that’s like what I said sifts through all those people who don’t last.

LB: And you constantly learn. One of the things with the film society, which is another thing we started, well Rick started, and it was a passion, and it become another monolith and like, people think it has become an exclusionary thing. A couple of years ago we realized that we (had become) so involved in doing what were doing, and that it’s valuable, but (that) we had kinda neglected outreach to the community. The only difference was letting them know what we were doing, who we were and how we did it. And there were some meetings. A lot of these people said what we really need is the younger generation to find funding or to bring people’s money in to help us do what we want to do. Linklater did Slacker because he came home one day and Lee Daniel had 20,000 foot of 16 millimeter film in the refrigerator. He did most of it with borrowed money or no money. Robert Rodriquez learned how to make movies because when he was ten his dad bought a video camera and a video deck. Then when he was fourteen, his dad bought a second video deck and he taught himself how to edit. Mike Judge was a musician who began drawing cartoons in the cellar. Nick and I started the Chronicle and we had no money. It was total perseverance. There are so many examples in this community of people who made it. Nobody helped them, there was no benefactor, there was no sugar daddy, they just stuck at it and they believed in what they were doing and they kept at it and they kept getting better. One of the things is when you get rejected. And I have been rejected. I had bands that couldn’t get bookings that I managed. I’m not a musician, but I would feel like, “You sons of bitches, you miserable … its all politics and you’ll get yours” and those miserable people, they were having such a great time turning me down. The ones who survive are the ones who when they feel like they’ve been beaten down say, “You’re not gonna get me, I’m gonna come back.” In the early days of the Chronicle, there was always somebody who would predict that we were gong to go out of business. And I remember being just a mess. And they would say, they’ll be gone by December and I’d say, well we gotta make it through December, and then it was January and I’d say, we’ve gotta make it through January. And I would think, “This is going to get easier. Someday we’re going to get advertising.”

What you don’t get is everybody to care about it and I’m not (even) the person I was 30 years ago. My wife was just a judge for Cinema Texas and she looked at the UT films and she kept calling me in to watch hours of it and I realized I can’t do that anymore. There was a time I could watch anything all day long and all night long and I have watched a lot of strange stuff, but I don’t have the same intensity of passion that I once had, but I’m still passionate. What everybody is looking for is something that excites them. It’s not like we are looking to say no, we are looking to say yes. You look for the moment when somebody calls you up or you run into somebody saying “Have you heard this band” or “Have you heard this CD”, or “Did you see this film”? Every time somebody says to me, “there is this filmmaker,” I go see the film because that’s what its all about. The depressing part is saying no. Turning down bands is depressing. Turning down films is depressing. Finding is exciting. Discovery is exciting, being introduced to something. And so the whole attitude (of the public) is like you know you have it, you don’t want us to have any.

AD: How many people do you have on staff right now?

LB: About 80

AD: I imagine the process is much smoother at this point.

LB: Yes, it’s so much easier. We care about two things. We care if we put out a great paper cause that’s what really makes us happy and taking care of the staff. And I thought about this when I was thinking about talking to you guys, especially given some of the questions you’ve asked over the years about SXSW and I’m totally comfortable answering those questions. One of the problems is that everyone spins everything they say in and out. I mean everyone is going to tell you what they think you want to hear. We used to carry interviews in the early days of the Chronicle. It was always fun. But now we don’t even do them anymore because everyone knows what the Chronicle is and they tailor their answers to you.

SXSW is my favorite time of the year. I love SXSW. I love all that activity. I love seeing all those people from out of town being just totally knocked out by Austin. I love it when filmmakers and musicians get a great reception. It depresses the hell out of me when there is a problem at a screening or something goes wrong with a band. There are always incidents. I don’t think most people believe how much we know about instantly and how much we care if something goes wrong at a club and its running late or a sound system sucks, how management and everybody knows about it. Sometimes you can solve a problem. Sometimes you can’t. There is nothing more depressing to me than when I walk into a theatre for the movie and the filmmaker and there is not a good audience. But the great thing about Austin is the number of times when I walked in and thought oh god this is going to be…and then later on heard that the filmmaker said, “I don’t care if there were 40 people in the room, those were the best questions I’ve ever been asked. That was one of the greatest screenings I’ve ever had.” That has happened again and again. That is what makes you happy.

I love those Paramount Premiers, the pricing is a little….well, I understand what the pricing pays for, but I love them because I’ve seen again and again and again with filmmakers who I really cherish get the screening of their dreams. Sometimes it’s films that are going to do extremely well and sometimes it’s films where that (turns out to be) the best screening. I love talent. I’m talking to you like this cause I read your publication and I know we are similar. I love talent and this stuff really excites me. There is nothing that gives me greater satisfaction than making something cool happen. SXSW, I love every minute of it. I sometimes just go stand on like 6th street or Red River and watch people cause they’re smiling and they’re talking and they’re going from club to club and the amount of energy! SXSW is a lot like how I use to live in my 20’s, with just film and music, the Daily Texan, and going from club to club.

AD: One of our favorite things is when we throw parties on 1st Thursdaze up at Ruta Maya. We love watching the crowd of people come to a party we created and we love to watch them dig the DAZE.

LB: This past Thursday when I was racing home I stopped to pick something up and I’m walking around, and everyone is reading a Chronicle and I walk by a guy on a cell phone and he’s calling somebody up to talk about the cover story. I even like it when people say negative stuff, although again, it hurts your feelings. I’m tough. I’ve survived a lot of stuff, so I can take it. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt you in some way.

AD: It hurts so much because, well, with our paper, it feels like a part of us. We put our lives into it so when we get a negative it hurts.

LB: When we started the paper, we had been at the Daily Texan, the student paper, and they had a supplement on Monday called Images that was an arts and entertainment supplement. So we started thinking, we can write, we can edit. This could be easy. And then sometimes like on Sunday, two or three stories would fall out and we would just sit down and write them. We hadn’t thought about distribution, advertising, personnel, any of that stuff and the first two or three years were just horrible.

AD: Well, you don’t know what you’re going to learn until it comes to the door, and then you have that under control and then another thing comes and there are always new things coming at you.

LB: Yeah. I learned how to be a manager in the mid to late 90’s. Up until then I was such, well I’ve always been an asshole, but I was such a self righteous asshole. The good of the paper was more important than anything else. I mean, I thought it was okay to scream at people and didn’t even think about that logically. And then there was a certain revelation that I wasn’t showing my people the respect they really deserved and that they loved it (The Chronicle), too. A lot of times when you feel inadequate or that you screwed up, you explode at other people and you realize (it). And you know I went to therapy, seriously, because you know somehow (in spite of this) I had a business and a very successful business.

AD: It’s hard to not to feel bad when you care. It’s almost easier to keep going if you don’t care. The more you care the harder things get.

LB: It’s like the worst addiction because more people keep reading it, so it matters to more people, so it’s like junk, man. If only they would all walk from it. There was a period where I really wanted to leave, there has been a couple of periods, I go through periods. I mean, sometimes for a year and a half where I just am not as excited. I don’t know what happens. But three or four years ago, I fell back in love with it and it has gotten better and better. I’m having a great time now. I’m having a really great time now. I’m really proud of it. Now, how long have you guys been around?

AD: 5+ years.

LB: Is that monthly or bimonthly?

AD: It’s every other month. We were every month but it’s so hard to distribute. We distribute 15,000.

LB: What is your annual budget roughly?

AD: We don’t even have a budget.

LB: If you had asked me what we made in the first 10 years, I wouldn’t have known. Now I know because I found there’s a sheet that has what we made every year, but I never knew at the time. One of the things that I realized at a certain point 3 or 4 years into it is that duration was our best sales person. Just surviving was going to help us sell in the future, but it still takes forever.

AD: How do people get in your Best Bets Category? Do you have to get an ad? It seems like you have to get an ad.

LB: The problem is that there is so much going on and, literally, its up to the staff writers writing that stuff. One thing I try to do periodically is look through several weeks of issues to make sure that we are covering a range of clubs or a range of different kinds of music. Sometimes we’ve gotten to the point where one club is getting four recommendations over six months and other clubs aren’t getting any, and that’s not what Nick and I started this for. You know, every club out there is trying. Every club has something going on. The amount of information we are getting in is just phenominal, but editorial and advertising are separate. It’s totally up to the taste of the writers. And that (taste) changes.

AD: Our readers want to know that. All the musicians and the artists have also asked about The Chronicles’ review policy …

LB: We listen to tons of stuff that comes in. It is almost impossible to believe the amounts of stuff we get. We can’t get to it all. And the thing that people don’t get is that sometimes if you don’t get a review, it’s because (the reviewers) don’t like your stuff or we don’t think its good enough and nobody means that personally. I’ve been publishing for a long time. In learning how to do your art, there are some people who just are gifted, that just blow you away with their talent. But a lot of it is who really pays attention, who learns, who’s constantly thinking. Who when they are rejected, fine, hate the person who rejected you, but you must also be determined that you are going to show them by getting better.

But it’s never that easy. And getting into the Chronicle is what (artists) care about. (The writers) are out there more than I am. The music writers and film writers are going to share what they find interesting. And that’s what’s a little limiting and that’s why I love these other publications out there like the Austin Daze. *

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