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The digital revolution has led to the birth of truly DIY music sharing, legal downloading and industry-backed streaming services; but with online retail continuing to aggressively up its share of the music pie, what does music retail in 2014 really look like? And what are the wider implications?

Amazon alone owns a 5.8% share of the US retail market. As of October 2013, it had a 79% share of the e-book market in the UK, and its net sales totalled $17.09billion. This was a jump of 24% compared to the same time the year before. It’s a massive retail entity, and looks set to continue to grow.

The main reason for this success has been the consumer experience Amazon offers. Easy to navigate and usually cheap and reliable, as the opening paragraph to this Forbes piece puts it: “I love Amazon. I love that I can buy rain boots for my daughter, groceries, a book, and replace a piece of computer equipment when our cat has made the last one into a toy in one click”. Founder Jeff Bezos himself has stated: “Put the customer first”. It’s a business tactic that makes sense and has helped Amazon reap the rewards; indeed, Amazon is so successful now that Bezos is number 12 in the Forbes 400, with a net worth of $27.2billion.

In the words of the boss, “You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well”. Just what the “well” in that sentence represents to the rising stars of the online retail market is the real question. As it’s the dominant brand, and has been the subject of the most scrutiny and news reports, this article will focus on Amazon. The real issue isn’t Amazon directly though, it’s the combination of globalisation and bad legislation, and the effect that this has had on various industries.

“Pursuing the Sickly Gazelle”

Amazon started in 1994, and the site was launched in 1995 (the same year as eBay). Originally it was an online bookshop, but has since expanded into selling almost anything. In 2002 it launched its Marketplace, where retailers could sell through Amazon’s network, and it is now noted as one the of biggest catalogues of music and books in the world. Search for anything on Amazon (try your hardest to be as obscure as possible), and the likelihood is you’ll at least find it listed.

According to his Wikipedia entry, Bezos left his “well-paying job” at a New York City hedge fund when he “learned about the rapid growth in Internet use”, which coincided with a “then-new U.S. Supreme Court ruling [that] online retailers [would not] have to collect sales taxes in states where they lack a physical presence”. He relocated to Washington, “because its relatively small population meant fewer of his future customers would have to pay sales tax”. Bezos obviously believed he could see the future, and possibly still does – he has after all invested in the manufacturing of a 10,000 year clock. Either way, even if he couldn’t see the future, he was prepared to write it.

As Amazon started as a book retailer, it’s sensible to look briefly at its rise in this area and the effect it’s had. It’s almost impossible to think about books in 2014 without giving Amazon a search, be it to find a synopsis, read a review, or compare prices. Boosted by establishing themselves as the frontrunner in the e-book business, it’s fair to say they’ve truly taken over the market.

Companies such as Amazon focus heavily on getting discounts from publishers, causing a reduction in turnover which many independent publishers can ill afford. The point of a price is clear – it’s not only the material cost of a product’s physical manufacture, but includes the human hours spent on the process of getting it from the producer to you. When you think about it, £7.99 for a book is nothing. Bezos himself obviously didn’t think so. In James Marcus’ piece on Amazon in Harper’s, cheerily titled ‘The Mercenary Position‘, he’s quoted as declaring that “Amazon should approach these small publishers the way a Cheetah would pursue a sickly Gazelle.”

It’s not surprising that the internet’s rapid dominance over the book market has hugely impacted on traditional stores. “Decline of the independent bookshop as UK figures fall below 1,000 for first time,” rang a Telegraph headline last month. UK book chain Waterstones has also felt the full force of Amazon’s power, exacerbated by the decline in spending by the public in general, with pre-tax losses going from £28.7million in 2011 to £37.3million in 2013. The loss of high street retail has been dramatic. It’s seen, in real terms, a loss of jobs and investment in towns across the country. The problem with this is that unless you happen to work in Silicon Valley or Luxembourg, the digital economy hasn’t been picking up this slack. And while that’s not technically their problem, aggressive bullying tactics towards both supplier and workforce, and the resulting impact on local economies around the world, creates plenty for the rest of us.

Numbers Games

One of the prime abilities of the internet has been to squeeze prices. And never has this been more apparent than with the growth of e-books.

The idea of digitalised text germinated decades ago, but since Amazon’s first generation Kindle launched in 2007, the device (in all its high-tech forms) now demands a 58% share of the US e-book market. This piece from the Economics Help blog is probably the best example of how Amazon goes about pricing works from independent publishers. In the world of e-books, this now stretches to individuals who self publish, too.

For self-publishers, if the price is between $2.99 and $9.99 (£1.98 and £6.60) for a book, Amazon’s Kindle pays the publisher back 70% of royalties. If the book is over $9.99 the publisher will only receive 35% royalties (Amazon receives the other 65%). As the piece states, “This is a very clear incentive for authors to keep the price of e-books low… As an author, I feel a little at the mercy of Amazon”. If you’re a traditional paper publisher, selling through Amazon, you can expect them to take a 55% royalty cut. Once all is said and done, a $15 book sale in the US can leave an author with $1.63 (before tax), whereas selling through an actual book shop could leave an author with up to $3.48. And if that all seems a little confusing, with a little bit of digging you find that digital only publishers are having to come up with some pretty creative number games to make the e-books market at all profitable.

The ability to self publish has obvious benefits (no filtering system between you and an audience), and obvious dis-benefits (no filtering system between you and an audience). People have largely focused on the benefits, as it’s a populist idea (see also: Twitter), but online retailers use their consumer base power to try to monopolise a market, to either control the price or take a majority cut of sales. They could argue that their investment into the format (in this case, e-books) is worth the reinvestment from you, the author or publisher, but this argument falls a little flat after they’ve recovered their cost to produce (covered, presumably, by the sale of the e-book readers themselves).

The numbers for an author on an e-book can seem very promising, but even writers who make more money via digital publication than print still see the significance of being brought into the marketing fold of a publishing house, for the sake of experience and recognition through official channels. Look at it this way: if you’re thinking about what book to buy, you might ask a friend, find ‘similar’ ones to those that you’ve already enjoyed, find a genre section of a book shop that interests you, maybe even use social networking, and of course you could use an online store. As the range of choice widens, and less and less filters go between the consumer and the supplier, the ability to decide on what your best option is severely deteriorates (an idea expressed best thought this animated lecture from the RSA, ‘The Paradox of Choice).

As a result, someone whose books are great but don’t start strongly won’t find much love online, and therefore see few sales. This severely limits a writer’s ability to develop their talent – hardly anyone writes a work of genius on their first go. If this structure of support disappears, where will promising writers find encouragement to see them through to becoming great? The literary scene will stale with ageing classics and celebrity titles. If there are no good books, won’t people just stop buying them? Although this probably means little to the self titled ‘Everything Store’ (and that’s literally everything).

The company has entered the entertainment business with confidence. In February 2012 they overtook HMV as the UK’s leading entertainment retailer, controlling 22.4% of the videos, games and music market. Later that year they had 22% of the download market (beaten only by iTunes), and as Reuters reported, were “running frequent price promotions to spur more sales”. In July of 2013 Music Week took notice as well, reporting that Amazon’s music sales were up 5.5% year-on-year […] making it the dominant retailer across all music – inclusive of physical, digital, albums and singles”.

They seem to be repeating their book-selling tactics in the music world – the only difference being that Apple have already invented the iPod (music’s ‘e-book’) and iTunes is the dominant force in music downloads. However, Amazon are using their consumer base to rapidly close this gap. One digital distributor we spoke to said “in terms of sales they’re now the second biggest download store we distribute to, excluding streaming”.

The 99p Store

In December 2013 worldwide star Beyoncé exclusively pre-released her self-titled fifth album via iTunes exclusively, and it sold 617,213 copies in three days. A big release, right before Christmas, most would consider this an essential product to stock, even if iTunes had run an exclusive pre-sale campaign (something which happens regularly, and is happening more and more on Spotify too). Amazon didn’t seem to think so. Along with Target, they flat out refused to sell the record. “The logic here is strategic deterrence”, Slate mused, “Amazon and Target want to show that they’re willing to shoot themselves in the foot to do minor damage to Beyoncé in order to dissuade other artists from signing even time-limited exclusives with Apple.”

Amazon appeared significantly less sanguine in this circumstance than Apple, who still serviced Lady Gaga’s ‘Born This Way’ despite Amazon’s $0.99 promotion on the record. As this Billboard piece notes, it seems like Gaga’s label didn’t even know the promotion was going to happen, and the knock on effect it had of killing sales in other places is arguably damaging in the long run. Bringing us right up-to-date with all this is the streaming service currently being developed by Amazon, which has so far garnered much criticism from the industry, largely because, surprise surprise, they’re putting pressure on labels to deliver discounts. The company seems to be living up to Bezos’ promise: “There are two kinds of companies, those that work to try to charge more and those that work to charge less. We will be the second.”

Last year, Henry Mancini’s ‘Touch of Evil OST’ was released on Poppydisc LP, with only about 200 copies in the UK being made available. Dealer price to shop from Shellshock, the record’s distributor, was £9.95 plus VAT. Amazon’s price was £10.90 inclusive of VAT. Independent stores had to sell this for £17 to make any sort of decent profit, while Amazon sold it at a loss of 86p. Despite this disadvantage, many distributors would still cite the importance of record stores, because they still take chances on new music and help break new artists.

Rise Records, for instance, is a staple of the Bristol high street (with outlets in Worcester and Cheltenham). Featuring a mixture of records, books, a cafe, clothes and high quality customer service, it’s an exemplary model of something that is more than ‘just a shop’. It’s owner, Lawrence Montgomery, notes: “What is interesting is that there is no large, successful (in terms of raw profit) entertainment retailer. Amazon lost money for years & now makes relatively modest returns as a percentage of sales; HMV went into administration in 2013 and will be, at best, marginally profitable. These businesses are run for the benefit of rights holders, distributors and suppliers as much the customer. They are service providers, conduits – they don’t really add value along the way. If anything they accelerate the devaluation of (physical) media.

We talked to another independent retailer who preferred to be stay anonymous: “I’m furious at them allowing other territories around the world to sell on the UK platform. There’s two areas in particular, Argentina and America. They have a 20% advantage on us, because people like me have to pay taxes; we cant hide behind accountants. These territories have lower trade prices.”

This issue of underselling isn’t something that can be easily tackled by the industry though; distributors and labels can’t deal with retailers on how much they price stock at, other than setting an RRP (Recommended Retail Price); otherwise this would be price fixing, and that’s obviously illegal.

Let’s look at another example. Gary Barlow’s latest album is selling on Amazon for as little as £5.87. Options three and four (as of 27th February 2014) are openly oversees sales, the fifth option initially seems to be from a UK retailer, but the product description mentions: ‘Please allow an average delivery time of 8-14 days. Worldwide Shipping. Multilingual customer service’. This, it has been claimed by more than one source, is an example of a US company selling via a UK-based intermediary and stocking a UK warehouse, but with the money going directly to a US company. If this is the case, it would be a breach of international postal laws. That might sound dry, but the knock on effect of a combination of globalisation, online retail and bad legislation is one of the reasons that the cost of tax avoidance to the UK is now up to £69.9billion. That’s £69.9billion of services, welfare and arts funding which won’t and/or can’t happen as a result.

“I have made complaints to the UK record companies about these practices,” the retailer continues, “I can’t buy from Argentina, because it’s illegal, but people can buy from these places with no sanctions. A lot of UK music is supposedly sold into other territories not to be sold back into the EU, but that’s what’s happening…”

How has this situation developed? “The way the global postal system works these days makes it more efficient. You can save £3 as a consumer but the loss to the UK economy is massive, this is like what happened when Jersey was fully functional [allowing anything which cost under £15 to be imported to the UK with a VAT exemption, this set up was shut down by the coalition government in 2012].”

A company with no vested interest in music continuing to dictate price and distribution is a worrying thought, especially when that price is always ‘low’, and the distribution route is always ‘them’. Richard Allen is the head of RAVAS, a coalition of eighty UK retailers, who were at the forefront of pushing through legislation which closed the Channel Islands’ VAT loophole. The Channel Islands claimed it was their right to undercut UK businesses, and although they weren’t breaking any laws, the UK was negating its own duty to ensure that VAT is fully paid.

The internet, from a legal perspective, is a wild west,” Allen says. “The rules on the high street have not caught up with the internet. People seem happy to deal with anonymous dealers online, but from a regulatory position this is poison… Trading platforms should be legislated, they should be held liable by the likes of HMRC.” This continued pressure about VAT avoidance has lead to the European Union starting to make efforts to ensure that it is collected, although this is a long and labour-intensive process.

One other repercussion is that, on the 1st January 2015, all digital downloads will have to be VAT registered in the EU, and VAT will be payable at the rate where the customer resides. It won’t matter where the online retailer is based, it will only matter where their customers are. One digital distributor who commented on this topic said: “Most companies have set up their business in territories where tax is lower, so when it changes to charging VAT on downloads based on the consumer’s location it will be the labels that are affected. Stores won’t put prices up so therefore it won’t affect the consumer, just the labels as it will come out of their share of money… [it] will be interesting to see how this impacts streaming too.”

Physical Attraction?

If any digital fans do turn an eye to physical product once again, what sort of marketplace will they have to interact with? Allen concludes: “They should introduce legislation that prevents people who run an online marketplace to sell on their own market place, because that allows people to potentially manipulate prices. At the moment there are no safeguards in place.”

That’s not to say that physical product is going down the pan; far from it. One physical product optimist is Lohan Presencer, CEO of leading dance brand and legendary South London nightspot Ministry of Sound. “We’ve diversified to support physical product. For example, there are now 350 BP garages which sell chart CDs. The CD is not dying by any means, we see massive value in physical retailers and product. We’re now in 6,000 stores, targeting another 1,000 this year. CDs are two thirds of all music sales in the UK, and you can do things like stock retailers on consignment – that’s sale or return where the retailer doesn’t pay for the stock upfront, limiting the risk for them.”

He continues: “High street stores have never been whiter than white. I remember when I was at [another label] we’d occasionally see negative return percentages – you could see that UK retailers had bought discounted CDs from other markets for sale over the UK counter […] grey imports have always been an issue.”

Even though CD and vinyl does have plenty of life left yet, the rise and (questionable) profitability of online shops, Amazon in particular, makes total sense. Innovation with tech products and the use of engineering to cut overheads and work on scales of economy are inherent forces within free market economics. It also brings some far less useful forces which come alongside those more positive innovations.

Norman Records is a staple of the UK indie scene. The predominately mail-order store has a distinct voice in music retail, not least because of its inclusion of staff and user reviews, while its occasional partnership with music site The Quietus has set it up as a place where criticism and retail go hand in hand. Phil Leigh from the store reckons that “Amazon moving more into the vinyl market (it was one of their big growth areas last year) is currently more of a threat to any indie than anything else. Fortunately some labels are combating this (like Domino) with indies-only vinyl versions of albums on coloured vinyl, with free stuff.

“Indie shops are romanticised and well loved, and with events like Record Store Day keeping ’em going and keeping profiles high I’m sure there will be high street shops for a good while yet. On a side note, if they released records all year round that people wanted instead of five hundred on one day, then I suspect that would help shops more. But I know I’m not the only one who thinks this.”

He concludes, “I do feel that Amazon offering free postage on LPs definitely is taking business away from independents. We have toyed with offering free post in the UK before, but if someone buys a 12″ for five pounds and we’re posting it out free then we lose one to two pounds on the order, which is crazy. You’d barely break even selling an LP freepost.”

Monopoly Man

What is Amazon’s goal? It isn’t making profits, per se. Its turns over billions (75 of them in USD) but makes only $274million in profit. That’s a big number to many, but as a function of turnover this is a business model which doesn’t work for many others. It’s only its enormity that helps it survive, and that leads them to them seeking monopoly status. Monopolies always kill themselves in the end. This is one of the reasons they are so damaging.

Take the diamond business that was monopolised by De Beers, a cartel who wanted to ensure the price of diamonds remained high while facing the fact that huge deposits of the jewel had been found in Africa. They maintained the perception that diamonds were rare and also bought up all the other diamonds and stockpiled them. In 2004 the company admitted to price fixing in a US court, not least because it meant they could finally do business in America without the use of intermediaries.

Luckily for Bezos, Amazon doesn’t actually produce much. Super lucky for Bezos, Amazon don’t just have the ability to get a monopoly on one product, they can monopolise ‘everything’ – cornering the retail market is not the same as cornering a product market. Yet they aren’t filling the whole void left by declining retail; overall sales are lower, yet Amazon’s market share is higher. We’re now moving into a position where almost no one is making money, due to wider economic conditions. In music retail specifically, because the leader in the field doesn’t want to make money but deliver a service, and the suppliers are slowly falling away (note the recent decline and death of EMI), the critical mass of online retail will be great but its sales small. There are very few scenarios where this sort of set up could sustain itself, and if that leads to the end of the likes of Amazon, this would be calamitous for people who sell music, people who sell books, and potentially anyone that sells anything else.

In May 2013 the BBC reported that Amazon’s UK subsidiary paid £2.4m in corporate taxes, despite its sales hitting a staggering £4.3bn, once again highlighting the gulf between their turnover and their profit margin. Even more unbelievably, their tax bill was nearly identical to the amount of grants the company received from the UK government the same year. This is largely due to the fact that Amazon’s warehousing, picking and packing centres are all located in areas in the UK where employment grants are available, and where unemployment is high. These also tend to be areas where property is cheap, leading to an advantage which many other companies can’t compete with, by paying less business rates than independent stores or anyone on the high street. On average, HMV will be paying business rates at around £1250/sqm, while a small independent might pay £300/sqm. A warehousing space in Swansea is probably paying around £31.50/sqm.

Another independent retailer we talked to says: “How does any retailer even think it can come close to competing… This is a failure of Government to regulate, and here is where Amazon’s voracious business practices push it along. It is trading on using gaps in regulation to make the operation successful, at the cost of others who are operating within the regulations. They are not operating illegally, and in fact they are showing that the practices of UK Government (and US Government) are way out of touch.”

Lord Lucas is one member of Parliament who has spoken about the effect of online retail. He runs a publishing company himself, the Good School’s Guide, and due to Parliamentary privilege he can also say things without the fear of possible libel action being taken against him. He gave the following speech in the House of Lords in February 2013:

[Amazon] is causing taxpaying businesses to die. One has just to look at what happened to HMV, which has died largely because of tax competition. A lot of that came from the likes of The Hut out of the Channel Islands but a good deal of it was mediated by Amazon. […] Suppliers will then become dependent on the one retailer. It is clear where Amazon intends to go after that: it intends to take out the publishers. It is already doing that in the States, forming its own relationships with authors and publishing its own exclusive-to-Amazon books. At the end of the day, what need has a company with three-quarters of the book trade of independent publishers? […] It compels suppliers to charge it less than they do anybody else, on pain of being dropped – either individual projects or entirely. It runs this thing called Amazon Marketplace, where little traders can go, but it knows everything that happens in that marketplace: all communications between a business and its customers, what is being sold and at what price. When it sees a good opportunity, it goes to the supplier and undercuts the trader… It provides a home for people who are breaching copyright by importing books from outside the appropriate area. It provides a home for people who are running VAT scams.”

In dramatic fashion, he concluded: “In one way or another, if we do not do something as a Government to remove the tax bias that benefits it, to enforce our existing laws and to put it through the Competition Commission, we will find that we have been steamrollered by Amazon.”

This is the same Lord Lucas who brought up issues regarding the Digital Economy Bill of 2010, a bill which is still waiting to be implemented. Some campaigners are even blaming the music industry on trying to fast track it through Parliament, although the entertainment industry as a whole is positive about it. Lee Morrison from Believe Digital says: “It’s an important issue that involves all copyright holders across the whole entertainment industry, and not just those in the music industry. Obviously the music industry has been pushing hard to support the act, like that of the BPI, and we’re 100% behind them. With the ever-changing digital and online environment it’s important that proper measures are put in place to stop copyright infringement and protect rights holders. Failure to do so ultimately affects revenue for the industry, which means less money to inject back into it to develop new artists.”

Politics & Influence

Anyone who bought something from Amazon over Christmas might have been aware of some late arrivals. This was due to a series of strikes in Germany and Seattle. 1,600 employees took part in the strikes, and more than 40,000 people signed a petition calling for Amazon to pay agency warehouse staff the Living Wage.

Earlier in the year, worker’s rights effected its UK operations, too. As Recruiter reported: “Online retailer Amazon has come in for heavy criticism after a Channel 4 News report on working conditions and employment rights, including an alleged avoidance of the Agency Workers Regulations (AWR) at the firm’s enormous warehouse in Rugeley in the East Midlands”. To put this all in perspective, Amazon pays UK warehouse employees the minimum wage, while The Forbes 400 (of which Bezos is in the top 15) have more than doubled their money since 2003.

This seeming disregard for employees appears at odds with Bezos’ personal politics. 90,000 of Amazon’s employees are not unionised, despite Bezos continuing to court favour with the Democrats in the US (“Campaign finance records show that Bezos has mostly given to Democratic candidates for federal and state office) and support gay marriage. His left wing leanings also extend to him having bought the Washington Post for $250 million, the world famous newspaper noted for being the paper that broke Watergate in the ’70s. The courting of US politicians obviously worked: his company was name checked by ‘Team Obama’ in a statement about their service, with the White House apparently aiming to deliver An Amazon-like shopping experience along with better health care.

It is possible, and highly likely, that Bezos never meant for his liberal free market retail site to do what it seems to be doing: killing off other businesses for the sake of itself. As is the running theme of hypocrisy in this economic philosophy, competition is good as long as you’re the competition. Bezos asked his company to make the most sales to the most shoppers, while delivering the lowest prices; to do the things they found hard and do them well. The result is a virtual shopping mall which only exists for the sake of market share. To quote many people with even a slight grasp of business: “Market share means sweet nothing, it’s profitability which counts.”

In 10,000 Years…

The last thing to think about is, why should all this matter to musicians? So what if online retail takes over the high street, with Amazon as its ringleader? It’s still a place to sell music, and people are still making money from it. This is the 21st century, and we have to adapt. Well yes, big retail giants have a place in the market, mainly for selling things in the pop charts. But your point of contact for music shouldn’t be that homogenous – it’s at its best when it’s at its most diverse. From the DIY element now given a hand up by the internet, to the high street shops where local music lovers and the community at large can converse (and where new music is given an opportunity to develop), right up to the supermarkets and online retailers, whose business if shifting pop star units.

As we have seen, if one company monopolises a market, they can price out (or undercut) the independents from being able to have a consumer base for the sake of making more profit somewhere else. If those monopolies collapse (and they historically always do), they leave a gulf of employment and opportunities in their wake (as when news organisations disappear leaving journalists at the job centre, or big companies liquidate putting thousands out of work).

Music retail matters because neither proving you’re an economic punk or a profit-led genius leads to the trickle down effect of money generated by sales. It’s not just executives who get paid by record labels, it’s engineers, distributors, PR people, producers, artists, lawyers and marketers. And off the back of all that success a whole other level of people make a living: promoters, booking agents, management, venue owners, record store owners, tour managers, tour van rental companies. And further on still from them: the person who works in the venues pulling the pints, and the company that makes the pints themselves. It’s a delicate ecosystem, and while it may not be completely dependent on music actually shifting units, as music is still shifting units shouldn’t we look at the best way to make sure every person gets the fairest deal possible?

I forgot to mention the actual musician in all of that – which, let’s not forget, is the main reason many of us who work in the music industry, or on its fringes, are all here in the first place. The chances are, if you’re reading this and you have a ‘favourite record’, that you’d prefer the people who made it to continue doing what they do best.

Any company who puts their focus into power and control above securing quality product or even profitability for themselves and their suppliers should be held with some suspicion. Remember, Amazon didn’t start in Washington because that’s where the great writers or publishers lived, or even because Bezos liked the place, it was because he was thinking of his tax return ten years later. I wonder how he sees it looking in ten thousand years.

There isn’t anything inherently evil with buying online. If a site is offering better service, better value and better range then obviously people will gravitate towards it. As Phil Leigh at Norman Records puts it, “even though we don’t sell downloads, I don’t really care what format they [consumers] buy as long as they keep on supporting music.” Variety is the spice of life, or so they say, and it’s useful to remember then, that for the time being, there are still alternatives. It’s positive to realise that having alternatives is a good thing, even for the companies who are seemingly helping put an end to it.

After bad legislation and the effects of globalisation, there’s one set of people left who can ultimately help decide the fate of retail and all that encompasses, including jobs and taxes (and not just in music). One set of people who can put their money where their mouth is, and vote with their wallet. It’s the rest of us.

At the time of writing Amazon had not responded to requests for an interview.

By Nicholas Burman

With special thanks to Kier Wiater Carnihan and Philip Harding for editing and guidance respectively, and everyone else who contributed.

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