David Singleton is a multi-talented songwriter, producer, audio engineer, record executive, tour manager, author, and more. He is best known for his work at Discipline Global Mobile [DGM], the company behind King Crimson. David is also behind a semi-fictional persona in the music industry called The Vicar , producing not only a very interesting album called Songbook #1 , but a whole universe around the character including graphic novels , written novels , and a video blog series . It’s extremely creative and huge.
I met with David during the Seattle Guitar Work Weekend in June 2017, a collaborative music effort led by Steve Ball including around 20 ex-Guitar Craft/Circle participants. The work weekend culminated in a King Crimson Friends & Family concert. David and I talked in the historic Robert Lang Studios about his music and what’s going on with King Crimson through 2019, making a living as a musician, digital music streaming, and more.
Enjoy this very enlightening conversation in video and podcast formats below!
More King Crimson content on the site: Failure to Fracture, a series about my decades-long effort to learn Fracture; my review of the June 2017 Friends & Family show in Seattle; and my cover of Robert Fripp’s song Erudite Eyes.
Interview Audio (Podcast)
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AG: This is Anthony with MakeWeirdMusic.com and I have a very special guest with me today. It’s David Singleton, all the way from England. Thank you so much for joining. We met last night and had a great conversation about music. I’d love to continue that, but can you introduce yourself and talk a little about what you do for yourself and for King Crimson?
DS: Well, I’m David and probably the main thing I do is I run DGM, which is not really a label, but the company I run with Robert Fripp , which we started in 1993 as a way of bringing music into the world and trying to solve the always-clumsy relationship between music and commerce. That’s really our core being: to try to find ways of honoring the music, bringing the music into the world, and trying to ensure that–if there is money involved–that artists get paid correctly. We started that in 1993 and we’re still at it.
We handle three artists. We formally handle King Crimson, Robert Fripp, and The Vicar. In effect, we handle King Crimson and then the personal music of Robert and me. That’s probably the best way to put it. I don’t think we’re perfect, but I think over the years, we’ve found fairly good ways of accommodating the dilemma because it isn’t simple music. Music really has to be made for the right reasons, which are artistic reasons and therefore, I think when music is driven by commerce (rather than the other way around) it often isn’t perfect. It’s always challenging, actually, trying to figure out how you marry the two. That roughly is what I do. My background is as a songwriter and producer.
AG: I listened to The Vicar Storybook #1. I loved it. I heard lots of influences from Andy Partridge of XTC to some Gentle Giant to The Beatles . Can you talk a little about your musical background and your involvement with The Vicar?
DS: Okay, so The Vicar is a fascinating project. My background is a songwriter and most of the songs on that album I wrote about 20 years ago. There’s a song on there called Twenty Two that I wrote when I was 22. At the time, I was trying to write songs thinking that I might play them and I never liked any of the results. So, I wrote the songs and I didn’t know how to produce them and nobody else was playing them in a way I liked.
When I revisited them more recently, I surprisingly discovered that the person who could actually arrange and produce the songs that 22-year-old David could write was actually me in the future. In fact, The Vicar is a strange collaboration between a younger me and an older me, both parts of which are really valid. I think, generally, younger people write very good pop songs. I think there’s a simplicity and an idealism that’s harder and harder to find as you get older. In fact, if you look at most of the things that most of us sing from the arts we love, actually were written most of the time before they were 30, whereas after that you develop other skills that are just as important, particularly musical skills and production skills.
I love this collision between a raw thing that I wrote–a lot of it did change, but there was a raw genesis written then and you produce it. With one of two of the songs, they were very changed. I always laugh at–there’s the story of the broom when someone says, “I’ve never replaced my broom ever. All I’ve ever done is replace the head five times and the handle four times, but I’ve never replaced my broom.” To some extent, I’ve always said there is no such thing as a bad song. There might be a bad melody and a bad lyric and a bad arrangement, but if you just change all of those, you’ve probably got a good song. So some of those songs have been slightly reinvented since the 22-year-old me wrote them.
AG: Did you write them with the orchestration in mind? There’s so much going on…
DS: “No and yes and no” is the answer. When I was younger, I couldn’t have conceived of those exact orchestrations. I wouldn’t have been good enough to write them. But, some of those songs have been done with bass drums and guitar and I thought they died. People have played on them, but they were never intended to be played like that.
So, the big decision with The Vicar album, which I didn’t realize, was the fact that there are no drums on it. That was a conscious decision partly because I hate it when you–if you have drums on something in particular, you start by laying down a click track and it’s this mechanical thing that everybody’s playing to. I’ve always hated that. I realized that I don’t hear drums in my head. This is a fault with me, I’d like to point out.
If I ran a Beatles song in my head now–I could run you Penny Lane . I can hear Penny Lane in my head, I could talk to you about all the instruments, and oddly enough, I wouldn’t ever mention that there are drums. That’s not true of all Beatles songs. Strawberry Fields or something, but most Beatles songs, I realize I hear the orchestra, I can talk to you about what the guitar’s doing, the piano’s doing, the wonderful orchestration is doing, but I don’t hear the drums in my head.
AG: Even in something like Come Together ?
DS: No, there are songs where the drums are such a thing. That’s one song like that. But, a lot of them, I suppose where the drums are just holding the backbeat, I sort of take it for granted, but I don’t run it in my head. I thought, “Rather than this rule of being guided by drums, let’s imagine there are no drums.” Really, all of the orchestrations on the album were as a result of that one decision because the moment you take the drums away, now it’s great fun.
Now your string part or whatever has got to fill in for what drums would have been doing for carrying the beat. I didn’t want to have any strummed guitars or drums. There’s nothing solidly strong carrying the beat. The album was what it was because of that very simple decision. I am a huge Beatles fan, but I think a lot of the reasons people hear it, even in the songs that I don’t think are particularly Beatle-esque actually, and they say, “Oh, but it’s so Beatle-esque…”
I think that’s simply because there aren’t that many people who’ve done that. Eleanor Rigby is a classic example. But there aren’t a lot of artists who’ve gone away and done things that are obviously pop songs. Andy Partridge also goes to that interesting land. Oddly enough, I wanted him to sing The Girl with the Sunshine in Her Eyes. I may yet persuade him, but Andy isn’t really comfortable singing over other people’s stuff. But, we’ll see. I’m still working on him for Songbook #2 because it’s an obvious match.
AG: How did you get into production and audio engineering and mixing and all that?
DS: In the first place?
AG: There’s not much history out there. It’s just, “This is what he does.”
DS: Okay, well, it’s odd because I’ve always done it. My background is as a musician that doesn’t like practicing. That’s probably where I started. I was like that in school. I used to play instruments for about a year or two and once I thought I sort of understood the instrument, I wanted to compose for it, but I wasn’t interested in being able to play it. So, I played the cello for two years, I played the french horn for a bit. I played the piano quite a bit. I played the flute for a bit.
Lo and behold, at some point or rather, the teacher said, “Really, you should be the conductor.” So at one point, when things were really bad at school, I used to conduct because I roughly understood all the instruments and I roughly understood the arrangements, but I couldn’t play very well. Then I started playing in bands. I used to play bass in bands. And similarly, because I had an overview, I ended up producing and saying, “Okay, I’ll produce it.” That’s why I first met Robert.
I really started as a sound engineer with Robert, but actually I was never–other than for him–I was never a sound engineer. I was really a producer. I started as a songwriter who became a producer and then I drifted into sound engineering, I think partly because it’s where the money is. The technology drove it like that. So the day when you were a producer and you sat in a studio, which I used to do, with an engineer sitting in front of you, was great, but actually after a while, the budgets were tighter or as things moved into computers, they said, “Actually, you’re now the sound engineer and the producer. It’s the same job, do them both.”
So when I very first met Robert, it was purely as a sound engineer to mix a tour. I think the very next album I worked on was Sunday All Over The World . I remember because they were struggling with the sequence of it and I said, “Well, try this sequence.” And Robert said, “Oh, okay, so you’re not really a sound engineer.” So, that’s really my background and Robert has always said that it’s inevitable that we would probably meet because he’s from Dorset and I was running a studio in Dorset. He said, “Actually, it’s a very small county, so hopefully if both of us were good at our jobs, it was inevitable at some point or another that we would come into the same orbit.”
AG: And now you run a record label together. How has the transition been for you to go from music creation to…
DS: Ooh, I think I’m still in denial about “the suit” of my job. I was told the other day, “David, you’ve become a suit.” I’m still in denial about that part of the job. The label itself went through a cycle of being a label and we stopped. So, with DGM we started with this kind of attitude of, “Let’s start the label and we’ll bring the music into the world, place it into the world without having to obey market constructs.”
When we make an album–Thrakattack is a perfect example. I don’t think any major label–I’m assuming here, by the way, that some of these people will know what I’m talking about. It’s an album based on King Crimson improvisations for one hour and I don’t think any sane record label would have said, “This is a really sane record release. That’s the one you should make.” But, actually with DGM, that’s not what we did.
We thought, “This is the album we should make. We’ll make it and once we’ve made it, we’ll work out how we might place it into the world.” So, we were doing that and because, possibly, we were doing it reasonably well, other people were keen we did it for them. There was a period of DGM–about the first 5 or 6 years–when it kept expanding. We had King Crimson, then we had the solo albums. We had Tony Levin’s solo albums, we had Bill Bruford’s solo albums, we had John Paul Jones . This was fine and there was a point when I realized I now got out of bed and all I did was I ran a label and we had 20 employees. We had offices in LA and whatever, and I said, “This is not what I set out to be.”
AG: You can’t pretend anymore.
DS: “I can’t pretend anymore and I don’t like it. This is taking me away from what I’m put on the planet to do.” So, we fortunately quietly persuaded everyone that they might like to find another home. It was in an honest way. And we moved DGM to what it is currently, which is just King Crimson, Robert Fripp, and The Vicar. It was wonderfully liberating. I still get a lot of calls from people saying, “Oh, you’re a label and I want you to do this,” and that’s not the business we’re in now. This is what we do because otherwise I’m just a suit trying to solve your problems for you. That’s not the business I want.
AG: Last night you talked about bucking the trend of the industry. Can you tell us a little about what that means and how you’re getting there?
DS: What I meant by bucking the trend–we were discussing how you make a living out of music and generally, music sales have been falling. Downloads, I think, are doing okay, but certainly overall, physical sales have been falling. If you go talk to one of the major labels, it’s been falling for a while. And ours are rising.
Personally I don’t think that’s surprising. I think that there are perfectly good sales out there provided you want to do some work, which I’ve told the major labels when we go to conferences. In other words, if you want to be lazy and sack everybody and say, “I own this CD and all I want to do is just carry on selling this exact CD tomorrow,” you won’t. Those sales are disappearing.
People are now moving to downloading and streaming them–and not stealing them as much as they were. Whereas, if you’re willing to add value and create things that people want to buy, there’s a very good physical market out there. So, the two things we’ve done is: the catalog really has been remastered and remixed and put out in surround sound, and every Christmas we’ve been doing a box set working through the albums.
Similarly, this isn’t a good example of what I meant about how you live with the market. This isn’t a crass, “We can make some money by putting the album in a box,” which I know some of the labels have tried and it doesn’t work. They’ll say, “Here it is and we’ll stick in a brochure and an extra CD of this, and here’s your box.” Whereas actually we do it in reverse. We say, “Okay, let’s look at this period and empty the archives and lovingly redo them.”
I think The Road to Red box had about 24 CDs of all the shows from that tour plus the album plus the album in surround sound and a booklet that’s full of pictures. So, if you’re willing to seriously go through and honor the albums and present each of the periods, they work very well.
Just to show how little we really allow the finances to run our world: it wasn’t until we’d done a few of those boxes that I realized that actually we unwittingly created a fairly major grossing item. Most of them are roughly 10,000 limited run. We can only make so many, so we make about 10,000 of these boxes. And they all sell for somewhere around the $100 range, depending on how many CDs we’ve had to put in. I just talked to Robert and said, “Actually, you realize every Christmas, we’ve got a million-dollar grossing item in a world where physical sales don’t exist anymore.”
AG: Right! And you had a great statement… well, “great” depending on who you ask. You said, “The world doesn’t owe creative people a living.”
DS: No! That was the other thing we were discussing. It’s very difficult, I think, because a lot of people look at the world and there are artists making a living. But equally well, I don’t think the world does owe–that’s part of what I think the joint between arts and commerce is so complicated. You can be a very talented musician and the world doesn’t owe you a living. Each person has to come up with their answer to how they solve that problem.
I suffer from that with The Vicar. The Vicar, I suppose, is my genuine heart, lifelong project and I’ve long since let go of the fact that The Vicar owes me a living. I’m dying to find ways of finding ears to listen to it, but I don’t think, “Hey wow, I’m going to become a rock star and the world’s going to listen to The Vicar.” If you go back in history, most of the composers probably had day jobs. They were either teachers or taxi drivers or… So, there is a living to be made.
Oddly enough, I followed up on that conversation this morning with Robert, summarizing what we’d discussed. I realized there was another way of expressing it, which I didn’t use last night, but there is a difference between musicians and artists. You have to define those two terms. Artists, the world will often give a living to. But, musicians, it often won’t. You can be one of the greatest musicians in the world. Often artists may be, technically, a less good musician, but what I meant by that is the people who somehow speak to the soul of the world.
It’s why, whoever it is that floats your boat, they speak to the soul. Those people generally are giving people something they need. If you’re giving people something they need, they usually will pay for it to some degree, whereas there are a lot of other people who are called to music and are just as passionate about it–“I have to do music and music is what I am”–it doesn’t always earn a living.
AG: DGM just put Radical Action out on Spotify and for any King Crimson fan, it was almost sacrilegious. It was like, “How can this possibly have happened?” Can you talk a little bit about the years of…
DS: The wonderful thing about that with Spotify is that when we–I’ll come to why we did it, but I’ve had at least five emails from Spotify saying, “Excuse me, are you sure? Can we really put this up?” Because we have spent so long berating them for doing it illegally that when they were finally offered it, I think they were terrified to actually put it up.
AG: Yeah, suing a record label…
DS: Oddly enough, I think we mixed a trick because–well, we don’t actually like suing people, but the one people we never chased for money were Spotify, who did several times put up King Crimson illegally. And I’ve been told this morning, this band I didn’t know, so they can’t be that large, has just settled out of court for millions with Spotify for the fact that they did use their music illegally. So maybe I should have continued!
A few years ago, long before we were on iTunes , when we were a complete digital musical stop-out (we weren’t in downloads, we weren’t on streaming, we weren’t on anything), we were at a conference with EMI, who were at the time Virgin/EMI, and they asked us about our digital music strategy. I said, “I have a more profitable digital music strategy than any of you. My strategy is quite simple. We don’t put it anywhere. We wait until one of you puts it up illegally and then we sue you.” For a while, it was an incredibly successful policy.
The download world matured into something where we thought, “This is somewhere we should be.” The streaming world is more nuanced. So, within the various people who contribute to the conversations within DGM, Spotify remains a hot topic.
AG: What’s the spectrum of views?
DS: The biggest fear on the left, probably from the people who do our physical distribution, is that it might carve into our physical sales. The danger of that is that physical sales require volume. So, if you lose 10% of your physical sales, you possibly lose all of them. What happens with distributors, is if you’ve got enough stuff, they order that stuff and buy your stuff, but it actually doesn’t have to drop very much before it’s worth not sending a lorry at all. So there’s always been a fear of whether streaming eats into physical sales. My feeling for a long time is that actually it’s two completely different markets and the one won’t pillage the other.
AG: And you’re on the other end of the spectrum?
DS: I’m on the other end of the spectrum where actually I think we should be doing this and I don’t think it’s going to eat into physical. In the middle, I think Robert has always been uncomfortable simply with the money flow back out of Spotify. Not simply, “Is it right?” I was speaking to a very famous producer the other day who has had 14 million downloads last year and was sent a check for $1,000 from Spotify. So, there’s an argument that says, “Is Spotify playing its fair way?”
My children are all Spotify users, I have a young family and they’re all Spotify users. For Christmas, my son gave me Spotify. I suspect I gave myself Spotify since I’m probably paying for it, but he gave me Spotify and he set me up so that on my iPad I can play it and I’ve got a speaker in the sitting room. He said, “Oh, you want to play that on your thing, and it comes out of the speaker.” I’ve always maintained that subscribing to a music library is one of the ways we will all enjoy music. I went to see La La Land . Have you been to see La La Land?
DS: I was a lover of La La Land. Musically, I was a lover of it. We’d gone and see it and I was on a high. It was 10 o’clock at night, I went onto my iPad and played La La Land and danced around the sitting room. Why is this not a wonderful thing to do? So it seemed to me that it was slightly perverse that in my home life I was doing this and in my professional life, I was saying, “But you can’t do it with King Crimson!”
So the compromise situation seemed to be that we would put Radical Action onto Spotify because it doesn’t risk suddenly–In the Court of the Crimson King , “Hey no one’s buying it anymore because it’s now on Spotify.” If I’m right, then we will add In the Court of the Crimson King because we will be able to show that it doesn’t eat into physical sales, but with Radical Action, it’s there so if you’ve gone to see the concert last night, you can go and listen to what it was.
If young kids want to talk, “You should listen to King Crimson,” there’s King Crimson out there. And actually, I love the fact that the King Crimson that’s out there is the new band and not something historic. I love the fact that if someone says, “You should listen to King Crimson,” if you did it on Spotify, what you’ll get to hear is this band, not some other band from 40 years ago. In fact, the same thing is true since we’ve been adding tracks to YouTube. I think Starless has just hit 2 million, which is a lot of views for King Crimson. And I love the fact that the highest viewed item on YouTube, where there is quite a lot of King Crimson, is a brand new track by the brand new band.
AG: That’s awesome. What is happening with the rest of The Vicar’s work? It’s not just a CD, it’s a graphic novel…
DS: So the irony of The Vicar is that–me, the songwriter, I’m a writer at the core, both a word-writer and a song-writer–I wrote those songs and the excuse to finally make an album was because I wrote a series of books. The Vicar is whodunnits in the music industry. It’s all these wonderful stories about corruption that you hear about and are based around the character, The Vicar, who’s a music producer and his assistant, Punk Sanderson, who writes the books, who’s far wittier and obscene than I would ever dare be.
The genesis of that actually was I was in a studio with Robert and somebody called and as usual it was some horrendous story about someone being ripped off. I turned around to him and said, “Why has no one written whodunnits about the music industry?” It’s just such a wonderful thing to set a story in and all these stories exist. And this voice came up from behind me, Robert was sitting behind me, and he said, “It’s because you haven’t written them yet,” which was a challenge I took.
So, I wrote the first Vicar book , which was actually published as a diary online. And then the second one , well the two of them were put together into a book and put out. I realized that actually having created the character of The Vicar, which is a whole world of semi-fictional real-world however-you-want-to-put-it. Now this was a wonderful opportunity that The Vicar could make an album.
It’s very weird. You start saying things and you realize you’ve got to say, “Hold on, I’m going to start saying things that sound a bit odd now.” But, ironically, Punk Sanderson, who writes The Vicar books, writes a much better book than I write. I’ve written books by David Singleton and Punk Sanderson writes (although I am Punk Sanderson) a much better book than I write.
I’ve considered previously several times–in fact, at the height of DGM, I considered lots of times putting out a David Singleton solo album and I thought, “Well, what’s the point and who would even be interested?” And The Vicar, even though I am The Vicar, produces a much better album than David Singleton would produce. I know that probably sounds slightly screwy, but it’s undoubtedly true. There was something about the whole–partly, the character was well-defined so even that fed into the album and it’s going to have a particular English sensibility because that’s who the character of The Vicar is–but, it was liberating and had I approached it as a David Singleton solo album, it would not be anything close to what the album is.
AG: Last night you mentioned that one of the biggest challenges is not selling, but finding an audience.
DS: Yes! And oddly enough, I think I’m boring your viewers because we’re talking about a conversation that they weren’t party to last night.
AG: Actually, the viewers love in-depth long things.
DS: So, you’re hearing the second half of a conversation at a dinner table that you weren’t there for. But, yes, I came away from last night, oddly enough, thinking that we didn’t have at the table the more challenging and interesting half of the conversation. A lot of people are talking about, roughly, how do we make a living out of music? To which the answer is, “You don’t.”
But we had a lot of conversations about that, but actually I think the other half of DGM is more interesting and more challenging because there are two halves. One half was to try and make the commerce work as well as we could, but the other half was to bring music into the world and to try and find an audience. And, ironically, we never tapped really on that last night.
I don’t have any secret answers to this. If I did, you’d have all heard The Vicar album by now. I think that is a much more interesting challenge and I think that the way the music world is going is quite exciting. The same way that you can get quite depressed about “how do I make a living?” I think there are more opportunities now for artists to be heard than probably there ever have been. There’s a lot of noise out there and I think probably there always way, but you have to rise above it.
And yes, I think similarly, Robert said to me this morning when I was paraphrasing, “The difficult thing to learn in life is that you may choose music, but music may not choose you.” It’s harsh, but there is a point at which some people make great records and it isn’t the type of music goes and speaks to a huge audience in a wonderful way, which is very horrible. But, assuming that maybe we’ve made a record for which there is an audience and an audience that would like it–which I believe about The Vicar wholeheartedly, by the way, otherwise we wouldn’t have made it. Cut me and I bleed.
AG: I agree.
DS: I think there are more ways out there now than there have ever been and it’s just as tough as it’s ever been because there is a lot of noise out there.
AG: But the playing field is so much more level.
DS: Exactly. So, previously, really unless you had a major record deal, it was a nonstarter. The irony of The Vicar is that when I was 22 or 23, had EMI come along, I would have cut my hands off if they said “Oh David, do you want to do this?” I would have said, “God! Thank you!” Just when I had just about finished The Vicar’s Songbook #1, I started having conversations about EMI whether they wanted to license it.
I suddenly realized I was having a conversation that was pointless because what were they going to offer me now that I don’t have? I can make the record, they aren’t telling me they have a secret answer on how to promote it, so actually what is their role in this? So, you’re right, it is a much more level playing field where, unless you have a huge, major record deal behind you, nothing is going to happen. Whereas the likes of Spotify and YouTube and social media, it is a much more level playing field.
As I said, there are no answers, and obviously there are no answers because if there was one, everyone would be out there trying it and it would stop being the answer again. The moment somebody does something clever, they’ll say, “Oh! That worked!” and it’ll never work again because everybody’s doing the same thing now. I think if you’ve got the right music, the same things that make music challenging financially actually open up avenues for people to hear music, which overall means I think all these things are good for music.
I think the music business is always a clumsy construct. It’s better out of the way, in a funny way. If the music can flow, that’s wonderful. Artists don’t like being ripped off. That’s Robert’s thing. The core of DGM was because people were being ripped off. So, if stuff is being sold, I firmly believe that the artist should get their fair share of it. I don’t think the artist should be ripped off. But, equally well, it’s not wrong that music should maybe be free. If music is completely free, that’s different because the artist isn’t being ripped off necessarily. If music is free, well, music is free. I don’t think free solves anything, either, by the way. If you’ve got real great music, people will pay for it. If you’ve got shitty music, people won’t listen to it even if it’s free and the price is slightly irrelevant.
AG: So we’re running out of time. I wanted to get a sense from you because I recall Robert posting something about planning tour dates through 2018. Is there a longer timeline than that?
DS: Oooh, there is a longer timeline than that. There is no set end to this King Crimson. They were originally proposing to maybe take a break and then maybe start again. The break is no longer proposed, so over breakfast this morning, we were discussing what we might be doing in 2019. We don’t have an answer to that, by the way, but I do know what we’re doing in 2018. I don’t think I’m going to tell anyone right now, but there is a full year’s touring in 2018.
Right now, there’s this tour, so there’s the–roughly, it’s a west coast tour, then we zoom across to Chicago, so I don’t know what you want to call it, but there’s this half of a US tour and we still have tickets available. It is not totally sold out. Let’s get that in there. But, then I think in the next couple of weeks we will be announcing an Autumn run that ends in New York, so if this is the “west coast” then we’re doing the “east coast” starting in Austin, just to make it confusing for everyone.
AG: It’s on a coast. [Sarcastic.]
DS: “Yeah, it’s on a coast.” So, this year is entirely in the US. Two tours in the US. Next year, I think, will be Europe and Japan. No, I know it will be Europe and Japan. 2019 we’re excited to try and do South America. Always problematic just in making it happen. We’re excited to try to make it happen because that will be the 50th anniversary to do some radical ideas that I haven’t had yet. I proposed a tour of London the other day and that might happen, as in 7 dates touring London.
AG: So there is an exciting future! That’s great!
DS: Yes! I think the band are up for it. I think the 8-piece is inexplicably far, far better than the 7-piece. Bill Rieflin will tell you it’s because he’s in the band. I don’t know what it is, but yeah, every year this band reinvents itself and gets better.
AG: David, thank you so much for taking some time. I really appreciate it.