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Combining Talent with Creativity: Lessons Learned from the Music Biz

By Mission

In the music industry, having talent is often not enough to succeed. You need to find a way to stand out and be unique. That’s true when it comes to marketing and ecommerce in the music industry as well.  Eamon Mulligan is the VP of Product & eCommerce at EMPIRE, and it’s his job to help lead a team toward ecommerce success. The way he does that is through creativity and partnerships that have proven to drive traffic in big ways. What kind of unique ideas have they tried, how do they manage to achieve a high ROI on SMS marketing, and what do memes have to do with all of this? Find out on this episode of Up Next in Commerce.  Main Takeaways: Think Outside the Box: In a sector as saturated as the music industry, you need to do everything you can to stand out and get your messaging and products in front of fans. Everyone is still using the traditional channels, but if you think outside the box and test ad content on different platforms — like meme websites — your impact might be larger than you expect. Employ Creative Partnerships and Campaigns: When you partner with artists and get them to buy-in to a creative marketing idea, they can put it out to their fans and followers who will be more likely to see credibility in the product because it’s coming from an artist they already trust. Stay Unintrusive: When utilizing something like SMS marketing, it’s important to be as unobtrusive as possible. It’s also critical to make transacting through text easy by providing direct links and easy access to the store or the cart they left behind. For an in-depth look at this episode, check out the full transcript below. Quotes have been edited for clarity and length. --- Up Next in Commerce is brought to you by Salesforce Commerce Cloud. Respond quickly to changing customer needs with flexible Ecommerce connected to marketing, sales, and service. Deliver intelligent commerce experiences your customers can trust, across every channel. Together, we’re ready for what’s next in commerce. Learn more at salesforce.com/commerce --- Transcript: Stephanie: Welcome, everyone, to Up Next in Commerce. This is Stephanie Postles, your host, and today on the show, we have Eamon Mulligan, the VP of Product and eCommerce at EMPIRE. Eamon, welcome. Eamon: Thank you for having me. Stephanie: How's it going? Eamon: Good. Just hanging out at my home office and plugging away. Stephanie: Yeah? Eamon: Yeah. Stephanie: That is good. I've never had anyone on the show in this industry before, in the music industry, so I'm really excited to hear all about it. But first I want to start with you and your background. I saw you have a long history in the music industry, so I wanted to hear how you got involved in that. Eamon: Sure. I guess not to go back too far, but as a kid I always loved music and wanted to be in it somehow. I grew up originally in Napa, California, which is not necessarily a hotbed of the music industry. [crosstalk 00:01:04]. Stephanie: Unless you get too much wine. I guess. Eamon: Yeah. I spent a lot of time traveling down to the Bay Area and watching local groups perform and eventually really attached and followed a local group called Living Legends and befriended them at the time webmaster, this is probably 1999, 2000 ish. And I didn't really know anything, what I was doing at the time, I was talking to the webmaster and asking, I read all these magazines and I see that mentioned in there, but there's never been a full on article, how does that happen? And then he went on to say, "That requires a publicist and BIOS and press kits." So then I started interviewing the guys and putting together BIOS and press kits, which I wish I still had today because I'm sure I would laugh at them. Eamon: And eventually, the Living Legends in 2005 asked me to go on tour with them to assist the tour manager. Previously I had been helping them with online stuff. I had started their MySpace page, their YouTube channel, was helping with an email newsletter. So that was where I cut my teeth a lot in the digital space. And then they had me go on tour. I was the assistant to the tour manager who was also doing merchandise. So I was helping set up the Merch booth, and she was teaching me how to sell stuff and keep tracking everything and all that stuff. Eamon: And then, with two shows left, she had left the tour ... the tour was ending right before Thanksgiving. And she left early, and they were like, "Okay, you're the tour manager now." And then I was like, "What?" Stephanie: Push you right into it. Eamon: Yeah, and they were like, "It's not that hard, it's not rocket science." And they just forced me into it Eamon: I had never gone to college, and so I eventually went back to school. And then so when I finally graduated from school, I initially was thinking, the music industry was fine, maybe I should try my hand at something else. And so I started taking interviews with a couple of ad agencies, advertising was interesting to me. I had taken a couple of the classes while I was in school. Eamon: Nothing really panned out. But at the same time, there was all these music opportunities that kept presenting themselves to me. I looked at that as like, "Okay, I think the universe is trying to tell me something here." And so we had put a release out with EMPIRE in 2011. And Ghazi, the CEO and founder, and I just built rapport, he's a Bay Area guy, grew up, born and raised in the Bay. So we just always kept in touch. And when I got out I shot him an email and said, "Hey, I'm looking for something to supplement my income, I'm still managing, but do you have anything going on?" So we went back and forth for a little bit and then he eventually brought me on to help with the physical distribution side of things and merchandise, which has been a long tale in building [crosstalk 00:07:09]. Stephanie: Tell me a little bit about what EMPIRE is at a high level and what your role looks like there. Eamon: Yeah. So, EMPIRE is really like an all encompassing company. So it originally started as a digital distribution company. Ghazi the founder just completely bootstrapped, was never taken a dime of investments, refuses to sell anything, retain 100%, that kind of autonomy. And eventually the company grew into adding label services with a lot of the distribution that we did. And one of the things that set EMPIRE apart originally was for the distribution deals. He was doing non-exclusive distribution deals. And that was unheard of at the time. People would often catch when he was giving out non-exclusive distribution deals and be like pretty crazy, what are you doing? Stephanie: Yeah. Jump at that. Eamon: Yeah. His thought process was, I'm not in the business of holding people hostage. If anything, hold us accountable, because then we have to earn the business, and it keeps us honest. And so that's been one of the guiding principles of the company to this day. And so, eventually, we started adding more services and more departments. And it's grown into a full fledged record label at this point. And then we also have a publishing arm. So right now we have a distribution, record label, publishing and merchandise. Stephanie: That's awesome. Any artists that I would know? Eamon: Yeah, we work with Snoop Dogg. We just released Adam Lambert album earlier this year. We were instrumental in XXXTentacion career, unfortunately who's passed, Anderson Paak, we were a part of early. We've helped grow a lot of early artists and we're still doing that and also working with a lot of legendary artists as well. Stephanie: Very cool. Yeah, I do know a lot of those names. So that's very impressive. So tell me a little bit about your role at the company as the VP of product and eCommerce when it comes to thinking of record labels. I don't always think eCommerce and of course, when I started looking at you and I was like, oh, yeah, obviously they are. But tell me what your day to day looks like there? Eamon: Sure, I manage our physical distribution and our merchandise team. So on the physical side that looks like setting up and gathering assets for a physical release and setting it up with our physical distribution partners, and getting stuff the product made, so CD, vinyl, cassette, and then making sure that it is getting into all the right stores. We'll also do a lot of exclusive things with Urban Outfitters and Vinyl Me, Please and other retailers, Turntable Lab, et cetera. Eamon: And then on the merchant side that looks like managing ... we have a team of people that's, our account management and web admin and marketing and production. So we're talking with the artists that are signed to our label that we have merchandise rights with and building out merchandise items and coming up with creative ideas. Sometimes it comes all from us, sometimes it's collaborative effort, sometimes the artist has things ready to go. And then we're just helping manufacture a market. But that's ... it ranges from building out the creative, building out web stores, building out marketing assets, as well as back end automation marketing as well. And then ultimately reporting and paying out the artists. Stephanie: All right, cool. So when it comes to thinking about being a label, because I would think some artists might be like, "Oh I'll start up my own eCommerce platform and sell my own merchandise." What makes them want to work with you guys and have you do that for them? Eamon: Sure. A lot of ... we're living in a very independent-minded world in music, especially right now. And that's very different than what it used to be. So, we also have that spirit, but a big part of it is the production and the fulfillment process. A lot of people can build the website and put up a product image just that they made in Photoshop, but when it comes to fulfilling stuff and getting stuff out to customers on time, and then getting things made and knowing how to prep your files and all fun stuff. Those are the areas where they definitely lean on us. Stephanie: Got it. How does the creativity process when it comes to creating merchandise, and making sure that you're creating good merchandise, because I'm sure artists have a lot of ideas around like, here's the thousand things you can do. But I'm guessing that you guys have a lot of insights into like, we've been doing this for a lot of other artists, and we know what sells and doesn't sell. How do you guide them in that creative process? Eamon: Delicately. Stephanie: You have to be creative. You've got to be careful. Eamon: Yeah. It's definitely ... a lot of artists I feel ... I'll say this, that I think a lot of artists are very savvy. And they are watching what's going on, seeing what their peers are doing, and also other artists that they look up to. And they have a lot of great ideas and then some of those ideas maybe a little ahead of where they are in their career. For instance a lot of artists might want to do a cut and sew piece, which means cut and sew, and so it's like you know you're actually fabricating a garment from scratch. You're not buying a blank garment and then just silkscreen something on it. Eamon: Which is possible, but there's high minimums for it to make sense financially. So, sometimes an artist will come to us and say, "Hey, I want to do X, Y, and Z." And then we'll come back and say, "Okay, we can do it, but we have to make like 300 of them." Eamon: And they're like, "We can just make 50?" And I wish we could. There are places that can do it, but the unit cost is going to be really high. So unless you feel like you have a diehard fan base that will pay a premium price on something, it's hard to do. So a lot of times explaining the mechanics of things, helps artists understand it. One of the principles that the company deals transparency and education. We want to educate the artists, we don't want to hoard the knowledge. We want to let them know, "Hey, this is a really cool idea, but it's going to cost this much and we would have to sell it for even more for it to make sense financially." Eamon: And then, a lot of times when you have that conversation they'll say, "Oh, okay, I get it now, let's try to figure something else out." So yeah, that's like ... I think education is probably the biggest tool. Stephanie: Yeah, that makes sense. And how do you guys go about selling With the actual merchandise, is that all under EMPIRE's website or are you putting in other outlets as well? Eamon: So yeah, we have a couple of different ways but we have a general EMPIRE store and so anything that we feel might just be a one off project or might be something that is not going to require a full own store themselves, we'll build out on the EMPIRE store and then things that are larger, it's going to be a longer relationship, we'll build out their own store for them. Those are our two primary sales channels. And then we also have a partnership with another company called Merchbar where they aggregate the products from our back end to artists, Spotify and YouTube channels. Eamon: So when a consumer goes to listen to Spotify and they're on the page and they're scrolling through their profile, they'll see a couple of Merch offerings on the profile. And then similarly on YouTube, if you may have seen it, if you're watching a video, just below the video, there's a merchandise shelf and so there'll be products there. So those are our bigger things. And then we have doubled a little bit in the live event stuff, but obviously right now that's not taking place. Stephanie: So when it comes to the EMPIRE brand, as a fan, maybe I'm not always aware of the label that's behind the artist, so how do you guys think about getting the fans attention from a label perspective, if at all? Eamon: That's a good question. Early in the company's history, we were all about not forcing that, and playing the background as we've grown, and we've become more of a label and less of a distributor. We've definitely made that play a little bit more. So it's like little things from ... we're making a CD or a vinyl including our logo on it, and billboards or advertising, we'll have our logo on it, and sending our artists, EMPIRE sweatsuits so that they wear them and they'll take pictures on them. There's pictures of Diddy in our sweat suits. Stephanie: That's great. Eamon: Cool. Yeah. Stephanie: I need a sweatsuit. Eamon: Yeah, send me your address. I'll get you on. And then we also do a lot of events around larger industry events or around the Grammys, around BET weekend. We throw parties that are widely attended and hard to get into. But that definitely helps spread the name. I would say that, a lot of ... probably right now more of the industry knows about us than the actual consumer. But I think that that's shifting the more we grow and have higher caliber artists. A lot of consumers that are knowledgeable or super fans, excuse me are going to Spotify and looking at the label line and realizing like, "Oh, this is another EMPIRE artist." So, I'll talk to a lot of people who will say, "I didn't know you guys had this artist and that artist and this artist. I saw on Spotify that you guys were the label name." Eamon: So I think that also helps too. I know as a kid, as an avid music listener, I would read all the liner notes, which unfortunately don't exist as much anymore in the digital space. But they're working on correcting that a lot of the DSPs and Spotify and Apples of the world are starting to include a lot of that metadata now. But I think having that information available and then the fans that are in the know will find it. Stephanie: What is your most successful marketing channels or advertising channels for your artists? Because I heard a little bit about EMPIRE you guys do events and billboards and things like that but is it a completely different strategy for marketing your artists? Eamon: General marketing it's a whole suite of things from ... that all connect and play with each other. So it's like putting out content. Isn't like the first part, whether that's audio or a music video. And then making sure that that audio and music video get seen through ads, serving as the fans, letting them know that the album is out, letting Know that new video is out and then direct email marketing. Retargeting, on the merchandise side we use a lot of retargeting apps and services. Especially one that works really well for us is SMS retargeting, and then outdoor advertising billboards. We paste guerilla marketing and then we also have our radio team. Eamon: We have our own radio team and so they're working records at radio. Radio is still a very large discovery platform for people. So that definitely helps bring artists into the general knowledge and then in the digital space, doing things on with a bunch of the meme pages and running that kind of content on there. Stephanie: That's cool. So I want to dive into three of these. Maybe first I want to start with meme advertising. I haven't heard of anyone doing that yet on the show, and I want to hear about how you guys think about doing that and how are you converting people over to either the merchandise or the music or whatnot? Eamon: Yeah. It's really just more of an awareness, like top of the funnel. So it's making sure the content is out there on all these pages that a lot of people are following. So it's like that. And then TikTok has been also a big part of that. So if something catches on TikTok, that's a huge driver for streaming because then people will go and find the song. Who knows what will eventually end up happening with TikTok. But that's been something that's really been cool as well and seeing if something goes viral on TikTok. That's always not something ... we can't control if something goes viral, we can help with the kindling of it, you know what I mean? But ultimately, if it catches it catches, if it doesn't, it doesn't. But the TikTok thing if something goes viral, we've seen huge spikes in the streaming numbers. Stephanie: Do you see any similarities between your videos that are going viral versus the ones that are duds? Eamon: That's a good question. A lot of them are ... on TikTok it's something that a lot of ... if it's anything that people can recreate and take a part of, or take part in sorry in the trend, then that's something that we'll catch. So if it's either doing some dance or doing some little skit or something like that, then those really take off, usually. Those are the ones that we've seen go. And then ... but sometimes it doesn't happen either. And sometimes it happens on songs that we weren't even thinking about. And all of a sudden we'll see that some song is going viral that we didn't even know about. Stephanie: Yeah. I think that's a good reminder of why testing and doing more rather than less is so important, because we see that with some of our ads that we surface too. Some of the most random ads that we use would be the best performing ones, but the ones that we really thought hard about they don't even work a lot. Stephanie: So the other two areas that I'm interested in, you said SMS is working well for you. What kind of messages are you sending to fans in a way that's not annoying and actually helpful? Not intrusive. Eamon: Yeah, it's basically, we're not being intrusive. Well, hopefully we're not, but a part of it on the commerce side it's basically like an abandoned cart email. So it only works also if the customer inputs their number. So if they get all the way to the point where they're filling out the payment information and put their phone number in and maybe their dog ran off the leash or whatever happened, or they don't complete the purchase. There will be a text that gets sent to them automatically and remind them like, "Hey, you left this in your cart." And there'll be a direct link to their cart. And we've seen astronomical return on investment on that, where we'll spend very little money and get thousands of dollars back. Stephanie: That's great. I haven't ... because I do get those texts sometimes. But I don't always have the link that just brings me right to my cart. That seems like a very great way to make sure it's easy, because oftentimes, it'll maybe link back to what I was looking at. But then maybe I'm on a different ... I was on desktop before or maybe now I'm on mobile, and it's a very different experience and actually hard to even purchase or [crosstalk] again. Eamon: Navigating back to where ... yeah. Stephanie: Yeah, that's awesome. Eamon: And then also just like digital marketing, we have a digital street team per se. So we have a general EMPIRE phone number that people can text and they'll get added to the list and then we'll blast out things that we feel are relevant or big announcements. And then we have artists setup as well with that. So a lot of artists have a phone number, and they can actually send text themselves and actually respond to people themselves, if they want to, it depends on the level of engagement they want to be committed to. But it's a good way to ... and you can also geo target that. Eamon: So if we were in a world where touring was going on, you can still, "Okay, I'm going to be in, where Seattle next week so let me send a text message to everyone with the Seattle area code." And say, "Hey, my show is next week, the show box, here's the ticket link." So, like helps in that way and then any new releases, album, merchandise, videos, can also be communicated through those channels. Stephanie: That seems really smart from a lot of companies and brands going more at the local level right now. And engaging with your local community, but how are you encouraging people to actually text you and so that you can even have them on the list to begin with? Because that seems like the initial hiccups to even get people to want to text you in the first place. Eamon: The acquisition. Stephanie: Yeah. Eamon: A lot of it is hinged on the artist and then posting something that says, "Hey, give me a text, shoot me a text and I'll text you back or." There's always some call to action or [inaudible] that's like, I'll text you back or you'll get a sneak peek of new music or a certain percent off my merchandise store, something like that. So there's always some incentive to sign up for the fan. Stephanie: That's great. So with everything's happening with the pandemic, and events and concerts being canceled, what are you guys doing instead? Because it seems like eCommerce is probably something that you're leaning even more heavily into, so what have you changed or plan on changing going forward? Eamon: We've definitely seen an uptakd of inbound requests with people wanting to set up eCommerce with us. So just, one being able to provide that option to people where they might not have the infrastructure on their own to do it has been helpful. And then we're also looking at different ways to partner up with delivery services. So for one of the releases I'm working on doing something with DoorDash. And so it'll be a custom facing restaurants. And then there'll be a couple of Merch items that are available through that. And so if you order the food you can also order a piece of merchandise and it will come with your food order. Stephanie: Oh, interesting. Tell me a bit more about that partnership. How did that idea come about and how are you convincing restaurants to also show Merch which maybe could distract someone if they're like, "I'm just trying to order sushi." And then they're like, "Oh, now I'm going down a [inaudible] of [crosstalk] as well" What does that feel like? Eamon: Yeah. So the project I'm doing on is the whole theme of albums are restaurant themed. So it made sense. The idea initially ... we were talking about it right as the quarantine happened, and at that time, it was like, "Oh, maybe it'll be done in a month." And so we were thinking of doing an actual pop up restaurant, like a physical pop up and like a restaurant in LA. And then as time went by, and we realized this is not going to end in a month We started thinking of other ways we could effectively do the same thing but not do it in a physical space where we would be having people come and gather. So we have a partnership team and I believe we have a connection to DoorDash and a couple of other delivery services, Postmates and maybe Uber Eats. Eamon: And we just reached out to DoorDash and presented the idea and they were into it. So it's still in the final phases right now of being launched. But the DoorDash team is handling the restaurant end of things. So they're basically going to be partnering with restaurants and going to specific restaurants and asking if they can provide a specific menu or menu items. And then within the app, it'll be basically a virtual pop up. So it'll be in its own restaurant and people will be able to order from there. But it's really on the back end, like an actual restaurant. Eamon: And it was also a cool way for us to try to support some of that, because the restaurant sector just took such a hard hit with the pandemic. We were like, how can we do this and not and also help that sector of the economy? Stephanie: Yeah, I love the creativity behind that. Eamon: Yeah. Stephanie: Yeah that's really great. What are other creative campaigns or projects that you've done like that before that either they worked really and you're like, "Oh, that's surprising." There's just a funny or random idea that worked well, or maybe one that you set up and you're really betting on and then it just didn't do anything? Because a lot of the things you're mentioning now when it comes to your marketing and channels you're trying out, you're probably one of the more creative companies we've had on the show that's literally trying a bunch of different things and new things that I've never heard of. So I want to hear a little bit more about this. Eamon: Yeah, we're definitely not afraid to take a leap and try things. One of the cool things that we did last year, we put out Snoop Dogg's album, "I Wanna Thank Me" and this was one of those things where we did it. We thought it was awesome, and we didn't feel like it fully connected. But we basically ... our digital team had someone build an augmented reality filter on Snapchat of the album cover. And so If you scanned ... on the marking sticker for the album, we put the little Snapchat like QR code and said, "Scan this code in Snapchat to hear a special message from Snoop Dogg." So you open Snapchat, you scan it, and then you put the album cover in your viewfinder on the phone and then the album cover comes to life and it was Snoop Dogg. He had, I forget what award show was that he had given a speech saying ... when people accept the words [inaudible 00:39:33], I want to thank God, I want to thank my family, blah, blah. Eamon: And he got to, I want to thank me because without me, without my hard work ... it's like a very endearing speech. And that was fully animated and you could move it in different angles, and it was like 360. And that was really cool, but I don't feel like that really virally took off at least. But that was one of the things that was different and unique that we did. Right now we're actually doing a giveaway for one of our artists Young Dolph, he is giving away his Lamborghini and to enter you basically buy Merch product that's bundled with the album on pre order. So yeah, that's a- Stephanie: I want a Lambo. Eamon: Yeah. Store.youngdolph.com. Stephanie: Go do that. Eamon: Yeah. So that's something that we're doing right now that we've never done. That's we're testing out. The first couple of days were really big and now we're trying to figure out how to keep it going. Stephanie: Have you seen any hesitancy with consumers with ... you've got all the stuff that like, I'll give you Bitcoin if you do this, and you'll win a free car if you do this. And it seems like it's a good mix between spammers and scamming people and fraud and then actual real competitions going on or giveaways. How are you balancing that in a way that people trust like, "Oh, yeah this person is real, or they're actually going to give away their Lamborghini or whatnot." Eamon: Yeah, I think that probably there's probably still some skepticism on the fans end at some level at all times, but the artist has posted on his social media so that always helps. That's helped one drive traffic to the store to ... it shows that it's coming directly from the artist and not just this unknown entity. So that definitely helps. There's a bunch of legal language on the site that explains everything if you feel so inclined to read legalese, but it's all there [inaudible] Stephanie: I do not. Eamon: Yeah. Stephanie: Okay, got it. So I guess one last bigger question before we jump into a lightning round is what is your guidance on larger brands being creative, having creative partnerships, marketing campaigns, how would you tell another brand to come up with these creative ideas or to really get into a mode of experimentation? Eamon: I think there's a couple elements. One it's having ... I think a part of it comes top down. Our founder and CEO, Ghazi he's always been like, try it if it doesn't work, then move on, but try something. So he's always been encouraging of that. So I think if you have that culture in your DNA, as a company, then I think that helps. The other thing is, I think obviously hiring the right talent, and having the right minds and skill sets they can think of and structure and eventually execute these things. [inaudible] we have a lot of young creative minds on the team and then some people that are a little bit older, they can help execute things that maybe have a little bit more experience of seeing things through or just executing. Eamon: I think the end of the last one, I think would probably just be ... what do I want to use here? The right infrastructure. If the company is really big, there's probably a lot of bureaucracy and red tape. We are lucky because we are independently owned, we're a small company so we can be nimble. So we are able to move and react quickly. But I think having the courage, I guess to jump out and try something is probably one of the bigger things. Stephanie: Yeah, I completely agree. And execution, like you mentioned is so key. Earlier, you were like, "Oh, we just reached out to DoorDash and just ask them if they want to partner." I think a lot of people might have an idea like that and then not just think, let me just email them and see if they'll want to partner on this which is Just [inaudible 00:45:21]. Eamon: Yeah, We are experts at not taking no for an answer. We are just like, keep trying and try to find different ways to get it done. Stephanie: Yeah, I will get to DoorDash. Just [inaudible] keep sending emails. That's good. Cool. I was thinking now we can move into the lightning round, if you're ready. It's a quick lightning round where I ask you a question and you have a minute or less to answer. Eamon: Sure. Stephanie: All right. What new up and coming artists are you all most excited about right now? Eamon: We're growing a lot in the African space. We recently opened an outlet in Nigeria. So there's a lot of good music coming out of there. Patoranking is one, Fireboy DML is another and then I also work with an artist to plug a little bit but with EMPIRE but Tobi Lou is another artist that I'm working with, that I'm really excited about. Stephanie: Cool. I'll have to check out all those artists. What app or piece of tech are you most enjoying right now? Eamon: I would say the standby Instagram, I guess. I probably spend the most time on that app just scrolling through and seeing what's going on. Stephanie: Yeah, I agree. I love Instagram. And then the last one if you were to create a Netflix or Hulu original or documentary, what would it be about? Eamon: Maybe about us, maybe about EMPIRE. I think that'll be interesting. Stephanie: There you go. If you don't celebrate yourself, no one else will you. I like that. Cool. Well, Eamon this has been such a fun interview. Where can people find out more about EMPIRE and you? Eamon: You can find out more about EMPIRE at our websites empi.re. No dot com, no dot net, just empi.re/empire. I think all social channels. So Instagram, Twitter, et cetera. And then for myself, Instagram/eamon E-A-M-O-N. Stephanie: Awesome. And thanks so much for coming on the show. It's been a blast. Eamon: Thank you for having me.

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