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Incom-Parra-ble: Memo Parra’s 30 years in music

Growing up in a country where concerts were banned forced Memo Parra to pursue an early career in the financial sector. However, as soon as restrictions were relaxed, his passion for live music came to the fore, and 30 years later, he’s one of the most successful promoters in the world. Gordon Masson learns more about his remarkable journey…

Born into a family that relied on contemporary art to pay the bills, it’s perhaps no surprise that Guillermo ‘Memo’ Parra ended up making a name for himself in the live entertainment sector. But, as a teenager and young adult, that career path was an impossibility.

“My dad was involved in the movie industry,” says Parra. “When a new movie would come to Mexico, he would make copies of the original so it could be screened in movie theatres all over the country. And if there was a problem with the colour or the sound, he would fix it.”

Because of that early exposure to the world of the silver screen, Parra is a self-confessed movie fanatic. “Actually, I wanted to go into the film business, but my dad didn’t let me because he wanted me to study for what he called ‘a real career’ in something, and that’s basically why I studied economics,” he says.

“When I was young, concerts were prohibited in Mexico because the ruling party of the government thought that the gathering of more than 20 or 30 young people was dangerous to the system”

While film may be among his passions, his true love has always been music. “I had the classic young boy’s room, filled with posters of Mötley Crüe and Black Sabbath,” he reports. “But when I was young, concerts were prohibited in Mexico because the ruling party of the government thought that the gathering of more than 20 or 30 young people was dangerous to the system. So, while Brazil and other countries in Latin America had concerts by the likes of Queen or the Rolling Stones or whoever, they would skip Mexico.”

Sadly, those government fears extended beyond live entertainment. “It was not a communist party, but they thought that anything consumed in Mexico should be made in Mexico, so imports of any kind were hard to get: if you wanted a new record, you couldn’t get it through a record store chain, you had to find underground record stores to get your Mötley Crüe record or your Ozzy Osbourne record or your Pink Floyd record.”

Such restrictions also impacted home life, as Parra’s father could only rely on movies approved by the government for his business. “We probably got everything eventually, in terms of movies, but the problem was that we got it at least six to eight months after it had opened in the United States. So, if a blockbuster movie debuted in January, Mexican audiences wouldn’t see it until August or September at the earliest.”

Determined to have an education that would allow Memo options both inside and outside of Mexico, he was sent to high school in Texas for a couple of years, where in addition to improving his English, he also had the opportunity to attend his first-ever concerts.

“July 27, 1983: one of the happiest days of my life – my first concert, and I got to see Iron Maiden, Saxon, and Fastway at the San Antonio Arena,” recalls Parra. “I’ve always been a metalhead. The first record I bought was KISS Alive! in 1975, and I’m still a huge fan.”

“Things started to change, so while I was working on the stock market, I also opened a nightclub”

With his first taste of live music under his belt, Parra was hooked. But with concerts still forbidden in his native Mexico City, he returned home and enrolled in college.

However, as things started to change in the 1980s, Parra and his peers were able to watch Cablevision, with channels like MTV. “It was a weird combination of everything having to be government approved, but we were not a closed economy – we would get information from the outside, and we had huge radio stations that were big on rock music. That’s why Mexico has a really deep love and respect for British music, because there were a couple of radio stations – Rock 101 was probably the biggest – who would play the latest music from around the world, even if it was difficult for us to get our hands on those records.”

Developing an intuitive understanding of finance, stocks, and shares, Parra’s first job saw him working at a local brokerage firm called Vector in the Mexican capital. But it wasn’t long before his reputation had bigger fish circling.

“Merrill Lynch hired me, and they opened offices in Mexico City with just five staff, initially,” he recalls. That stint saw Parra become head of floor trading for Merrill Lynch Mexico, but he was leading a double life, thanks to the government finally relaxing its stance on live music.

“In 1993, things started to change, so while I was working on the stock market, I also opened a nightclub – La Diabla – which had a capacity of 800-1,000 people, and I started booking and running that club. My day job was on the stock market, then I’d leave there and go to the club.”

“I had started to promote shows at bigger venues… but OCESA was already the dominant force, and I’d find myself being outbid by them for lots of acts”

Despite such an exhausting routine, Parra revelled in his passion, which saw him hosting gigs for the most important Mexican and Latin rock acts, as well as some early shows for the likes of London After Midnight, Radiohead, and Marillion.

“By 1996, I had started to promote shows at bigger venues – Los Lobos, Héroes del Silencio, Peter Murphy – but OCESA was already the dominant force, and I’d find myself being outbid by them for lots of acts.”

Nonetheless, impressed by what they saw in Parra’s independent operations, OCESA founder Alejandro Soberón made him an offer to quit the financial sector and join his company full time. “At first, I was not interested at all,” admits Memo. “It was really OCESA who professionalised the concert industry in Mexico, starting with INXS at the Sports Palace in Mexico City in 1993, so I really admired them, but at the time, I was happy with my dual life.”

Parra recalls that as Mexico began to receive recognition as a viable touring destination, thanks to OCESA, slowly but surely doors began to creak open for smaller promoters.

“Because of what OCESA was doing, the industry started to become a bit more interested in Mexico, so I tried to do stuff at 2,000 and 3,000 capacities. But it was hard because every time I sent an offer to any acts, there would be an offer from OCESA making my offer look low. I remember one moment in particular where I was booking a pretty big artist, but then OCESA made a bigger offer, and the agent came back to me saying, ‘There’s nothing I can do. I’ve gotta take the bigger offer.’ So that’s when I knew how tough it was going to be to compete.”

“Actually, nowadays, I have lots of agents who are my friends, and I remind them that they laughed at me 25 years ago”

He confesses, “Working on my own, I just couldn’t get the confidence of agents. I recall sending offers to every agent for the club, for 800 or 1,000 capacities, but I would not get responses from anybody. It was like, ‘Who are you? What have you done in the past?’ Then, when I was starting to build momentum, that’s when OCESA started making bigger offers on whatever I sent, meaning that I never really got into that place of gaining the confidence of the agents.

“Actually, nowadays, I have lots of agents who are my friends, and I remind them that they laughed at me 25 years ago, 27 years ago, 29 years ago…” Instead, Parra pivoted and sourced talent from elsewhere.

“I made some good contacts with people at record labels, who at that time still had budget for tour support, so they were bringing acts to do promotion in Mexico, and I’d host them at La Diabla,” he tells IQ. “At the same time, I was organising private parties and stuff for the record companies – we did a Bee Gees five-song set in my club and a party for the label, for instance.”

Again, OCESA made moves to persuade Parra to join them. “They tried to hire me a few times, but we couldn’t find any agreement,” he discloses.

However, fate intervened when the Mexican stock exchange announced its intention to computerise its systems.

“In one year, I went from sending faxes to booking Sting and Backstreet Boys”

“I loved the adrenaline of being on the floor, executing trades, so the idea of sitting at a computer screen all day did not interest me,” explains Parra. “Prior to 1999, the Mexican stock market was an open market, with people standing and shouting, ‘Buy! Sell!’ or whatever. That was what I did, and I was really, really good at it. But in 1999, that format was going to change and instead of being a live voice market, it was going to be a computerised market, and I hated that idea.

“Luckily for me, the offer from OCESA remained on the table, so, in early 1999, I finally quit my day job to join the company and focus on becoming a full-time promoter.”

Not everyone was happy.

“When I told my dad I was quitting the financial business, he didn’t get it. I remember him saying, ‘You’re 30 years old, you’re making more money than me, and you can do that for the rest of your life, but now you’re gonna start with a new company, sending faxes every day…?’”

But the contrast in the level of talent he was dealing with was immediately apparent. “The first acts I worked on were Metallica and KISS in February 1999. I was not directly involved, but I was in charge of the press department and stuff like that,” says Memo.

“I did stuff like Marillion and Radiohead on flat deals, and those were my baby steps”

Once again, Parra’s talents shone through and a few months later he had been promoted to director of OCESA’s international department. “In one year, I went from sending faxes to booking Sting and Backstreet Boys.”

Indeed, Parra notes that the difference between running his one-man operation and working for OCESA was like night and day. With no shows of any consequence in Mexico prior to 1993, dealing with the representatives of artists and bands was a thankless task for an unknown indie. Not so for his new employer.

“OCESA were very astute,” observes Parra. “When they launched in Mexico, they made a partnership with Ogden, which was sort of an equivalent to what Live Nation is these days. Every agent and manager was used to dealing with Ogden, so that definitely helped OCESA grow because people would pick up the phone when they called. So even in the early days of
1993 and ‘94, acts like Sting, Madonna, and Paul McCartney came to Mexico for the first time, thanks to OCESA’s Ogden partnership.”

Working under the OCESA banner also allowed Parra to promote shows outside of his hometown for the first time, and tasked with developing the company’s international department, Parra worked hand in glove with New York-based colleague Bruce Moran at OCESA Presents – who he states has been one of his music business mentors.

Prior to joining OCESA, Parra says he was a self-taught promoter. “I wasn’t even coming up with pitches, I was just sending offers, like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna sell 3,000 tickets at this price, and this is the venue.’ I didn’t even know that there were percentage versus flat deals and stuff. But I was doing every major Mexican or Latin act on that level in Mexico, and I did stuff like Marillion and Radiohead on flat deals, and those were my baby steps.”

“I was working with two hats: I was the booker of all the acts that came to Mexico, and I was the promoter of all the acts that came to Mexico”

The education process changed when Bruce Moran became a colleague. “He taught me everything I know about this business, how to elaborate the bid sheet, how to approach an agent, how to approach a deal. We made up a perfect combination from 1999 to 2006, as he and I would talk every day about certain acts, and I would give him the amount that we could offer, then he would do all the booking, and I would promote the show.”

Explaining the set-up, he continues, “We had an office in New York called OCESA Presents, which was run by Bruce, and when I joined OCESA, that’s where all the bookings were made. It was a good system because the fact we had that Ogden partnership meant that Bruce, and OCESA Presents, had the confidence of all the agents and managers. In effect, Bruce would book the acts in New York, and I would be the promoter for those acts in Mexico.”

When Moran left OCESA for pastures new in 2006, the heir for that New York-based role was apparent. “I went to run the New York office, so I was working with two hats: I was the booker of all the acts that came to Mexico, and I was the promoter of all the acts that came to Mexico. So, from 2006 to now, I still wear those two hats. I’m still the booker and the promoter,” says Memo. “But thankfully now I’m surrounded by an amazing team.”

However, rather than spending countless hours on flights to and from the Big Apple and DF, Parra now bases himself permanently in his hometown. “We closed the New York office in 2010 and moved everything to Mexico City, so OCESA runs everything from Mexico now,” he explains.

Down Mexico Way
Noting that his country’s most important markets are Mexico City, Guadalajara, and Monterrey, Parra states, “The other markets are not even secondary or tertiary markets – for the last 25 years, Mexico hasn’t changed much on that level. It’s still those three major markets, each one of which has a huge regional audience to service.

“Every band that reunites, it’s just crazy numbers – they maybe were used to selling 10,000 tickets, but now they can sell 60,000 tickets”

“If you look at Guadalajara, which is in the middle of Mexico, it’s surrounded by seven big cities less than one-hour-and-a-half or two-hour’s drive. So people in all of those cities go to Guadalajara for concerts. The same thing happens with Monterrey and Mexico City – there are cities with 1.5–2.5m people within a two-hour drive of Mexico City. And right now, the population of Mexico City and its surroundings is about 25m people.”

Thanks to strong demand from those three hubs, the live music industry in Mexico has never been in better shape, and while promoters around the world are concerned about the mid-tier of the business struggling, Parra says thereare no such worries in Mexico.

“Actually, from 2,000 to 6,000 capacities, if you try to find a date, you will always be fourth or fifth hold – there is a lot of activity there; it’s a strong market,” he says.

“Because of fan demand, there are a lot of opportunities to come to Mexico, and on the local scene, there’s a lot of acts that are starting to develop to a good level. Meanwhile, older acts coming back are doing huge business. Every band that reunites, it’s just crazy numbers – they maybe were used to selling 10,000 tickets, but now they can sell 60,000 tickets!”

And it’s not just the behemoth of OCESA that is reaping the rewards. “There’s a pretty good independent scene in Mexico City right now, and we love to co-promote with those indie companies,” says Parra. “We’ll partner with independent promoters from 1,000 capacities upward to festivals with a 50,000 capacity – having partners is a pretty good part of our success.”

“Of the senior people who run OCESA – maybe 10 to 15 people – I’m still the new guy, and I’ve been here for 25 years”

Growing South
Having joined OCESA when employees numbered around the 200 mark, Parra has seen the company grow year upon year to its present headcount of close to 2,500 personnel.

“When I joined OCESA, it was a pretty small company because it was only six or seven years since it opened. Now, it’s a publicly traded company, and I think we’re the third-biggest promoter in the world. Our founder, Alejandro Soberón, has done an amazing job to create this industry in Mexico.”

Naming Soberón as another mentor from whom he is still learning, Parra says, “I talk to him every day. He wants to be involved in everything, but at the same time, he lets you do whatever you want. He’s a great boss – he’s always there to provide advice, but otherwise, he just oversees and lets me make any decision that I want. And he’s been like that for the last 25 years.

“Alejandro gives people a free pass on every level of the company because he knows that he has the perfect team in each part of the organisation – production, marketing, human resources, promoters, everything. And that’s because of him. He basically lets us do whatever we need to do to make it work but also to enjoy ourselves. As a result, most employees have been here for a long, long time. Of the senior people who run OCESA – maybe 10 to 15 people – I’m still the new guy, and I’ve been here for 25 years. But even in the likes of accounting or human resources or any other part of the company, people stay for 10, 12, 14, 15 years. It’s a great place to work.”

Not Growing South
In addition to promoting artists in Mexico, Memo is also active in Colombia, but a non-compete agreement prevents OCESA from operating any further south. “We love to have associates, and we actually just did a partnership with Páramo, the biggest promoter in Colombia,” says Parra. “Festival wise, they have an event called Estereo Picnic, which we’re excited to be involved with.”

“Nowadays, a lot of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian acts are playing Foro Sol – it’s been growing exponentially for the last five or six years”

In addition to organising festivals and promoting hundreds of shows, these days, OCESA also runs a number of government-owned buildings in Mexico, including the iconic Foro Sol and Sports Palace venues. “We operate them to make it easier for agents and managers and for ourselves to conduct business,” notes Parra. “That part of the business is run by our operations department – a separate division.”

He continues, “My job description is 100% international acts. There’s another OCESA division that handles all of the local and Latin acts, and that’s becoming huge. A few years ago, the only acts that could play Foro Sol, for instance, were international superstars. Nowadays, a lot of Mexican, Spanish, and Argentinian acts are playing Foro Sol – it’s been growing exponentially for the last five or six years.”

And as those acts grow and establish international fan bases, Parra and his team often take over when the representation changes. “For example, Shakira, Enrique Iglesias, and Ricky Martin have US agents and US managers, so they come through me. But Tiago or Bad Bunny go through the local department,” he says.

“I’ve also created some specialist divisions in my department because Latin music is getting so big. For example, I divided reggaeton into a separate department and entity. For the most part, I only deal with mainstream Latin pop. But if you include our reggaeton business and EDM and festivals, run by Leizer Guss, whom I’m proud to have taught everything I know, I think we’re doing about 200 shows every year.”

That festival side of OCESA now includes 19 events. “I run, curate, and oversee Corona Capital, which is our biggest festival with 250,000 people over the weekend, and this year it was held 17-19 November,” he says. “You would think that it’s a festival happening in London because we had Blur, Pulp, Liam Gallagher, The Cure, Pet Shop Boys, and Chemical Brothers.”

“I deal a lot with American agents, as well as agents based in Britain, because where Mexico lies on the tour routing depends on the agent”

Every Agent’s Amigo…
Where acts tour before and after they visit Mexico also differentiates Memo from most of his promoter peers around the world, in that he finds himself dealing with representatives in both Europe and the United States to secure talent.

“I deal a lot with American agents, as well as agents based in Britain, because where Mexico lies on the tour routing depends on the agent,” he explains. “If it’s a British agent, then Mexico is part of ‘the rest of the world,’ which includes South America. So, they book Mexico, and then they do the Latin American run. But when I’m dealing with a US agent, most of the times the Mexican dates will be part of the North American tour.”

Also setting Parra apart from his fellow promoters is his impressive background in economics. “It allows me to have a better analysis of the exchange rates,” he confirms. “It also helps me have a better analysis of the whole financial structure of a show. At the end of the day, it’s a financial project – you’re selling tickets, but you have a lot of expenses, so you have got to make it work.”

While territories in Latin America have historically suffered during economic downturns, Mexico has only gone from strength to strength during Parra’s career – as proven by OCESA’s claim to being the third-biggest promoter in the world. “The Peso is strong, and thankfully, during the last 25 years, we’ve only had two devaluations, which we’ve been able to handle by increasing ticket prices,” notes Parra. “Sometimes in South America, when there’s an FX problem, the economy collapses. But in Mexico, the FX changes have not collapsed the economy, allowing the concert business to be steady and growing.”

In fact, Parra reports that the growth this year has surprised him. “At the moment, the market is accepting our ticket prices, and this is going to be OCESA’s record year, by far,” he says. “I thought it would be difficult to beat 2022, but 2023 is amazing. Ticket prices are higher than ever, but the economy is taking it well, and we are selling those tickets and seeing record grosses.”

“There will be less stadium tours in 2024 coming through Mexico, but at the same time, we’re going to have many more arena tours”

Looking ahead, he adds, “2024 is looking good as well. A lot of acts will be touring, so we already have a lot of things confirmed and a lot of things just about to be confirmed.”

However, one concerning matter next year is Mexico’s presidential election. “If nothing happens and everything goes smoothly and FX rates continue to be the way they have been for the last few years, then we’re going to have a great year as well – it’s already going to be at least 75% of what it was this year. There will be less stadium tours in 2024 coming through Mexico, but at the same time, we’re going to have many more arena tours.”

Problemas
Of course, with thousands of shows and festivals under his belt, Memo has experienced his fair share of problems. But he singles out one event in particular as a game changing moment.

“In 2014, Corona Capital was hit by a huge storm. It was enormous,” he relates. “We had to stop the festival because people literally could not get from one stage to another – they couldn’t go to the bathroom; they couldn’t go to the food stands. Everything collapsed inside the festival site.

“It was really frustrating seeing so many people just desperately trying to get out of the venue, although lots more also stayed. So everything was put on hold for three hours before we brought back all of the equipment and the festival was able to continue.

“It’s definitely becoming a bigger problem that the weather is not as predictable as it once was”

“It was the first time I properly realised that you have so many things that could happen at any given time, and you cannot control them even if you have the best plans in the world. There’s always something you cannot predict; it could be from the artist side, it could be from the production side, it could be from the weather.”

He continues, “We had a lot of years with a lot of luck. In my 25 years at OCESA, I’ve only cancelled stadium shows twice because of weather – Britney Spears in 2003 and Billie Eilish this year in March. In total, I’ve done more than 300 stadium concerts and only two got cancelled.

“After the storm at Corona Capital, I moved the dates from early October to mid-November, and that has worked so far, although who knows with the weather we’re all seeing these days. It’s definitely becoming a bigger problem that the weather is not as predictable as it once was.”

Despite such concerns, Parra still embodies the infectious enthusiasm he had for music when he first started organising shows 30 years ago. “I try to remind myself every time I’m at a show just to go and see the crowd’s faces and reactions,” he reveals. “Even if it’s 10 seconds or 20 seconds or one minute, knowing that all the hard work of all the OCESA team makes people happy, means it is all worth it. I’ve promised myself that the day I don’t get that feeling, I will quit this business.”

Highlights
Looking back over three decades, Parra has numerous highlights, but two immediately spring to mind.

“Doing three shows with Depeche Mode at Foro Sol was amazing. Working with them is always fantastic”

“My favourite record of all time is Pink Floyd The Wall, so when I promoted Roger Waters: The Wall, I just thought it could not get any better. I have a great relationship with his manager, his agent, and his production manager, and knowing that I was involved on The Wall, was, wow – one of the best moments of my life.

“Another big highlight was U2,” he states. “Because of some political problems, they had not been to Mexico City for a long, long time. But on the Vertigo tour, we had them playing at Aztec Stadium, and that was huge.”

Right up to date, Memo says that 2023 has been one of the best years in his career. “Doing three shows with Depeche Mode at Foro Sol was amazing. Working with them is always fantastic – it’s just what this business should be about: people caring about people and ensuring the whole business makes sense for everybody. There’s never any drama. It’s pure pleasure dealing with everyone from the band to Baron Kessler to Tony Gittins and everyone in the crew – it comes from the band all the way down.”

He adds, “It’s the same with Taylor Swift – that’s one of the most professional teams I have ever worked with. It’s an impressive machine, and there are no hiccups.”

The Future
Running the hugely successful international department of OCESA is a time-consuming job, but Parra has found some ways in which to relax and switch off from the daily responsibilities. Any spare time that he can find tends to be spent with his wife, Sandra – herself a former music business professional – and daughter, Roberta, in a place called San Miguel de Allende, named by Condé Nast as the best little town in the world for the last five years in a row.

“Right now, OCESA is really focused on festivals – making them safer and better on all levels”

“We’ve been married for ten years, and now Sandra takes care of Roberta, who is nine years old. I’m trying to help shape her taste, music wise. She loves Depeche Mode, so I’m getting there. And she’s a huge fan of Taylor Swift, which I am as well, so it’s fun to be able to take her to shows.”

As for ambitions, there’s no letting up in Parra’s drive to take OCESA to the next level.

“The company needs to keep growing so we can make the concert experience better for fans,” he states. “So right now, OCESA is really focused on festivals – making them safer and better on all levels – food wise, production wise, and the whole festival experience. Right now, we have 19 festivals, which goes from I think the smallest one with a 30,000 capacity, all the way to Corona Capital.”

Parra also reserves praise for his peers at Live Nation, which two years ago completed the acquisition of a 51% stake in OCESA. “It’s been a great deal because it’s been very smooth for us, and life couldn’t be much better. I look forward to seeing how the relationship will develop,” he says.

“My personal ambitions? I have a great team and a lot of young talent inside my company who I want to help reach their potential, as well as teaching them to respect the industry while having fun.”

“Mexico has become a hot market for the ticketing business, but it also became really hot on the social scene”

Looking ahead, Parra is predicting another busy year for himself and OCESA. “2024 is a packed calendar, including four Metallica shows at Foro Sol as the renovations there will be finished by then. I think Mexico is Metallica’s biggest market, so the crowd reaction is always incredible,” he says.

“The good thing for us is that Mexico has become a hot market for the ticketing business, but it also became really hot on the social scene. Everybody wants to come to Mexico – agents and managers want to come here when their artists visit, and that’s because of our culture and the fact we have one of the best restaurant scenes in the world: we have the top female chef in the world, and we have two or three restaurants on the top 20 worldwide.”

Enjoying that social side of the business almost as much as he enjoys the music, Parra says, “One thing that I will take when I retire is the amazing friends that I’ve made in this industry.”

He concludes, “There are a number of agents and managers who I talk to where it’s not a business relationship anymore – they have become real and true friends, and I look forward to working with them to bring music to the fans for hopefully many more years.”

 


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IQ 124 out now: Year in trends, Memo Parra, Poland

IQ 124, the end-of-year issue of the international live music industry’s favourite magazine, is available to read online now to give you some reading matter over the holiday season.

The December/January edition brings down the curtain on 2023 by wrapping up the key trends and takeaways from the global live music business over the past 12 months, as well as looking ahead to what’s in store for the industry next year.

In addition, we celebrate trailblazer Memo Parra’s 30 years in music, charting his unique journey from stock market trader to director of international talent at giant Mexican promoter Ocesa.

Elsewhere, we crown road warrior Malcolm Weldon as The Gaffer 2023, and Derek Robertson glances back across the first ten years of First Direct Arena in Leeds – speaking to the people who have helped make the last decade such a success.

And in our latest market report, Adam Woods visits Poland to learn about the growing optimism among live music industry professionals.

For this edition’s columns and comments, FanFair Alliance’s Adam Webb highlights the reasons for the UK-based campaign’s relaunch, as ticket touts get ever more sophisticated, while Christina Hazboun, Keychange Project Manager, UK, at PRS Foundation outlines some of the initiatives the gender equality scheme is employing to end the music industry’s patriarchal landscape.

As always, the majority of the magazine’s content will appear online in some form in the next few weeks.

However, if you can’t wait for your fix of essential live music industry features, opinion and analysis, click here to subscribe to IQ from just £8 a month – or check out what you’re missing out on with the limited preview below:

 

 


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