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Bad Deals Are Baked Into the Way the Music Industry Operates

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Unpaid Royalties is a series about the myriad ways that the music industry exploits Black artists—and what’s being done to change them. Read more here.

Over the past few months, a number of Black artists have spoken out about being trapped in what they say are exploitative, lopsided record deals with their labels. In March, Megan Thee Stallion sued 1501 Certified Entertainment for fraud, breach of contract, negligent misrepresentation, and other alleged abuses, accusing the company of preventing her from releasing new music and refusing to renegotiate her contract. In September, Kanye West lashed out at Universal Music Group on Twitter, demanding ownership of his masters and likening the way record companies treat artists to “modern day slavery.” They’re just two of countless Black musicians who have taken issue with their labels publicly, and called for reform at record companies they say are often guilty of swindling the artists they sign.

If we want a more racially equitable music industry, putting an end to predatory dealmaking and making sure Black artists don’t get locked into unfair contracts is an important piece of the puzzle. But as much as artists have been talking about these deals of late, there’s very little discussion of how they’re put together. That’s due in part to confidentiality clauses: Short of artists releasing hundreds of pages of legal documents online like West did, there’s no way of knowing exactly what any given agreement includes.

That said, thanks to information shared by entertainment attorneys who have firsthand experience with these contracts, we do know how most record deals are typically structured. And when you wade through all the legal jargon, it’s not hard to see that even contracts that represent “industry standard” are, from an artist’s perspective, inherently unfair—structured around the repayment of an upfront label investment that many artists will be unable to recoup, partly owing to the terms of their agreement itself.

No two contracts are exactly alike, but we’ve gone ahead and broken down the three most common types of deals an artist might find themselves in today, offering a window into how the “bad deal” isn’t an anomaly—it’s baked into the way the music industry operates.

The Standard Royalty Deal

How does it work?
When an artist signs a standard royalty deal with a label, the company gives them a chunk of cash that goes straight into their bank account (known as an advance), which is used to keep them financially afloat while they record their album, in addition to fronting the money they need to make it. In exchange, the label gets to own the recordings on that album, known as the master recordings, along with any revenue those masters generate through sales and streams—though it will pledge to give artists a percentage of that revenue, known as the royalty rate.

Something important to consider with standard royalty deals is that all of the money the label “gives” an artist up front, in the form of their advance and recording costs, is actually a loan, one the artist is obliged to pay back through the proceeds from their album. According to the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers, an artist’s royalty rate usually falls somewhere between 10 and 25 percent.). If an artist secures a royalty rate of 20 percent, for every dollar their album makes, 20 cents go toward paying off what they owe the label.

Once they’ve paid back all of that money—known as their unrecouped balance—then, and only then, will they see royalty money hit their bank account. The problem is, for that to happen, the record has to generate a whole lot more money than the record company invested in it to begin with.

I could use an example. Can we see some numbers?
Let’s say a label gives an artist a $1 million advance and it costs $200,000 to record their album. That means the artist has an unrecouped balance of $1.2 million. With a royalty rate of 20 percent, their album has to earn $6 million before they break even.

Here’s how that works: $6 million (what the album earns) multiplied by 20 percent (what the artist gets from those earnings) equals $1.2 million (what the artist owes the label). From that point on, the artist begins to earn twenty cents on every dollar their album makes. Of that $6 million, $1.2 million covers their advance and recording costs, and the rest—$4.8 million—goes to the label.

$6 million is a lot of money. In a world where streaming has largely supplanted physical album sales and digital downloads, how many streams would it take to make that much?
A ton. According to an industry survey conducted by Digital Music News, record labels make an average of $0.005 per stream on a platform like Spotify or Apple Music. Using the above example, an artist’s album would need to generate 1.2 billion streams across all platforms to make $6 million, and for the artist to break even.

Getting 1.2 billion streams on one album seems like a pipedream.
It is! Almost no one manages to achieve that, aside from superstars like Drake and Taylor Swift.

So what happens if, between revenue from streams, sales, and digital downloads, an artist doesn’t break even?
Basically, that means they never managed to pay back the loan they owe the label. The artist still gets to keep their advance, but—in the event that they’ve signed a multi-album deal—the remainder of their unrecouped balance carries over to their next record. Let’s say they still owe the label $500,000 from their first album. If it costs $200,000 to record their second album, they now have to earn $700,000 on that album to break even, and to start earning royalty money. If an artist gets an advance on their second record—which, according to Richard Salmon, an entertainment attorney and lecturer in media and intellectual property at London Metropolitan University, is usually the case—the amount they have to recoup will be even steeper.

Standard royalty contracts often include option periods: windows of time in which a label can choose whether its artist makes another album for them or not. According to Tonya Butler, a former entertainment attorney and label executive who now chairs Berklee’s music business department, if the label decides that it does want to extend the artist’s contract for another record, the artist can’t say no.

“When you sign a recording agreement for, let’s say, one year and five options, you have committed to six years,” Butler told VICE. “The label has not. The label has committed to one year. But you committed to six, just in case they want to pick up all five options.”

Got it. Is that all?
Nope—but we’re almost done with this one, I swear.

On top of the advance and recording budget, in many standard royalty agreements, the label will add the cost of marketing and promoting a record to an artist’s tab as a recoupable expense. Let’s go back to our example from earlier: The artist received a $1 million advance and $200,000 to record their album, leaving them with an unrecouped balance of $1.2 million. If the label puts an additional $200,000 toward marketing and promoting the album, and that money is recoupable, the artist is now on the hook for $1.4 million.

Something else we should note: In an effort to keep things simple, we’ve been working with a set royalty rate of 20 percent. But according to Butler, that percentage can vary based on territory. For CD sales in the US,  an artist might be getting a standard 20 percent royalty rate—but for CD sales in Germany, that might be reduced to 16 percent; in Japan, it might drop to 14. As a result of these royalty deductions, the artist is earning even less money toward recouping their advance.

“That is very standard,” Butler said. “You’ll have a base rate, and then that base rate may be reduced depending on a variety of things, but usually having to do with international distribution. [The label’s] defense is, [a] 20 percent [royalty rate] in China, by the time we get the money, is less, so you get less. Because of the exchange rate, and all that other kind of stuff.”

Is there a way for an artist to make money without recouping their advance?
Not from their master royalties—but in other ways, yes. Under a standard royalty deal, the label has no claim over an artist’s touring revenue, merch sales, sponsorship money, or anything else that isn’t directly tied to the recordings they made for the label. Additionally, if the artist wrote their own songs, and ensured they owned the publishing rights to those songs, they’re entitled to mechanical royalties: the royalties for the underlying composition of a song, as opposed to the royalties from the master recording. These royalties are paid to an artist by the label, and the artist doesn’t have to recoup their advance, recording costs, or marketing costs before they start earning them. Mechanical royalties don’t bring in a lot of money (about $0.0006 per stream, according to Royalty Exchange), but at least they’re worth something.

That said, according to Butler, it’s not uncommon for record deals to stipulate that labels only have to pay out 75 percent of an artist’s mechanical royalties. That leaves the artist earning mechanical royalties of just $0.00045 per stream.

All in all, this doesn’t seem very appealing.
It may not—but according to James Sammataro, who’s spent more than 20 years as an entertainment lawyer representing both artists and labels, standard royalty deals can be invaluable to some artists. Sammataro told VICE that often, artists signing standard royalty deals are relatively unknown. What a major-label deal provides for a newcomer, he said, goes far beyond an advance and a recording budget.

“As described, it’s like, ‘Whoa, that sounds like a horrible deal’—but for non-recognizable acts or up-and-coming acts, what the label is really providing is notoriety, A&R support, and distribution,” Sammataro said. “So in a physical-product world, you’re doing a couple things: You’re signing the artist; you’re developing the artist; if you’re doing it right, you’re putting that artist on the road with more-developed acts; you’re helping them get a presence, to find their skill set; you’re getting them exposure, which would lead to radio play. And then you’re distributing their physical product. This is really important in the non-digital world… The label was a starmaker. That’s how you made recognizable, household names.”

According to Sammataro, up until about 2015, “it was really, really hard to get something other than a royalty deal”—but over the last five years, they’ve become less common. Thanks to the advent of social media and streaming services like Spotify and SoundCloud, artists have been able to build massive followings without the help of a major label, making the benefits of a royalty deal that Sammataro described—exposure, radio play, and development—less attractive. Sammataro added that if an artist comes to the table with a large fanbase, they’ll often be able to negotiate a better cut of their earnings than the 80/20 profit split traditionally provided for in a standard royalty deal.

Additionally, Sammataro said, it’s important to note that in a standard royalty deal, “the artist has no risk”: If a label gives them a $1 million advance and their album flops, the artist still keeps that advance.

The 360 Deal

How does it work?
Under a 360 deal, a label is entitled to a portion of the money earned from everything an artist does related to their career as an entertainer. This can include, but is not limited to, earnings from record sales and streams; concerts; merchandise; endorsement deals; licensing (placing an artist’s music in movies, TV shows, commercials, and video games); money artists make by writing songs for other artists; and even acting in movies and TV shows. In an artist-friendly 360 deal, a label might only earn percentages of the income from about four of those revenue streams, such as concerts, streaming, merch, and acting gigs. But according to Sammataro, many 360 deals will entitle labels to a percentage of an artists’ collateral or ancillary activities, which is just a fancy way of saying that they get a cut of everything an artist does for money in the entertainment industry.

An example: In 2005, Madonna signed a massive 360 deal with Live Nation spanning an entire decade and requiring her to make at least three albums. At the time, Live Nation’s CEO said that in exchange for giving Madonna a series of large advances, a signing bonus, and stock shares—reportedly worth a combined $120 million—the company would receive a portion of the proceeds from “‘everything that Madonna will do music-related over the next ten years, anywhere in the world, including touring, private events, studio albums, DVDs, film [and] TV.”

According to Butler, 360 deals emerged in the mid-2000s as record labels began to see revenue from physical album sales decline, and they’ve become increasingly common since.

“The standard royalty deal on physical product was not generating enough revenue to sustain labels,” Butler said. “It doesn’t matter if I’m getting 70 to 80 percent of [the profits from] CD sales if nobody’s buying CDs. There was a mentality shift: Labels felt like they were creating not just musical artists but entertainers and celebrities. Once I am funding or sponsoring a celebrity, who is now getting acting jobs and endorsement deals and making money on tour, if I’m not getting money from CDs, I need to be able to participate from the other revenue that these celebrities are generating.”

How big is the label’s cut?
It varies. According to Sammataro and Butler, in some 360 deals, the label takes a set percentage of all of an artist’s earnings, and that percent applies across the board. That rate will typically be between 10 and 40 percent, they said.

“It lingers around 20-something,” Butler said. “If you’re doing 10 [percent for the label], you’re doing good.”

In other 360 deals, each specific revenue stream comes with its own advance and profit split. For example, an artist might get a $5 million advance to make five albums, with a 20 percent royalty rate; a $10 million advance for three concert tours, with a 70/30 profit split in the artist’s favor; and a $5 million advance on merch sales, with a 70/40 profit split in their favor. Anything not covered under these specific arrangements falls into an all-encompassing “ancillary” category. The money earned from ancillary activities is carved up according to a single, set rate, which typically ranges from 10 to 40 percent for the label, according to Sammataro and Butler.

Sammataro said that aside from the royalty rate for an artist’s master recordings—which is almost always skewed in the label’s favor—every other profit split will favor the artist. Typically, he said, artists will receive about 70 percent of the profits from each of their revenue streams, give or take ten percent in either direction.

The artist gets to keep their advances no matter what, right?
Yes—but just like in a standard royalty deal, all of those advances are basically loans an artist pays back to the label through their earnings. Additionally, according to entertainment attorney Justin M. Jacobson, the advances are often cross-collateralized, which means that if an artist recoups one of their advances, the label can channel additional earnings from that revenue stream toward advances the artist hasn’t paid off.

How does that work?
If the label gave an artist a $10 million touring advance, and they earned $15 million touring, you’d think the artist would just pocket their share of the extra $5 million. But in a cross-collateralized deal, the artist wouldn’t get that money unless they’d completely recouped all of their other advances. If they still owe the label $5 million from their advance on merch sales, their extra touring money will be counted toward recouping that debt instead.

So the label gets a cut of everything the artist makes, and in exchange, the artist gets… what exactly?  For one, the total advance from a 360 deal can be huge—Jay Z reportedly signed one with Live Nation for $150 million in 2008—and that can be alluring. Plus, with a 360 deal, the label isn’t just investing in an artist’s music; they’re investing in them, both as recording artists and as all-around entertainers.

“If you do a 360 deal with Madonna, you’re now in the Madonna business,” Samattaro said. “[The label is] constantly looking to monetize you because you’re in their tent, so to speak. Every dollar you make, they make. So you’re perfectly aligned.”

If the percentages of an artist’s earnings the label takes are reasonable, that could be a good thing. If the label’s percentages are too high—and they’re not doing their part to help your career flourish—it could be a disaster.

“If all people are doing is gobbling up your rights… that’s not a good deal for you,” Sammataro said. “I think Live Nation’s deals were offering real value; certain labels can offer you real value. These small regional companies that are offering 360 deals, they’re not offering real value.”

The Net Profit Deal

How does it work?
In a net profit deal, the label pays an artist a cash advance, puts up money to record their album, and fronts the cost of marketing and promoting it, all of which is recoupable. Once the record starts making money, the label takes 100 percent of those earnings until they’ve recouped all the money they fronted the artist. From that point on, the artist and the label split the net profits from the artist’s album. According to Sammataro, that split typically ranges from 40/60 (in the label’s favor), to 50/50.

Let’s say the label gives an artist a 50/50 net profit deal with a $200,000 advance, $200,000 to record their album, and $200,000 for marketing and promotion. That leaves the artist with an unrecouped balance of $600,000. The first $600,000 their album makes goes straight to the label. After that, for every dollar their album makes, they get 50 cents, and the label gets 50 cents.

Compared to the other deals discussed here, a net profit deal is significantly more artist-friendly: Artists are able to break even more quickly than in a standard royalty or 360 deal, and once they have, they’re receiving a much larger share of master royalties. The rapper Russ and singer-songwriter Lucy Rose both have 50/50 net profit deals with their labels, and both have spoken about how happy they are with the setup. Notably, while Kanye West signed a standard royalty deal with Universal early in his career, he negotiated a profit-sharing arrangement with the label for his sixth album, Yeezus, under which he splits the net profits from the record with his label 50/50.

This whole thing seems too good to be true. What’s the catch?
For one, Sammataro said, very few artists are able to secure these deals.

“It’s not that easy to get a 50/50 deal with a label,” he said. “You’ve got to really bring something to the table.”

Additionally, net profit deals often aren’t quite this simple.

According to entertainment attorney Bart Day, in a typical net profit deal, the label will charge artists an overhead fee, which they justify as a way to help them cover the cost of running a label—paying salaries, office rent, and other business expenses. The overhead fee is calculated as a percentage of the gross earnings from an artist’s album—money the label takes off the top before profits are split. That overhead fee can be as high as 10 percent, but according to Sammataro, it usually ranges from 3 to 5 percent.

Let’s go back to our earlier example, where a label invests $600,000 in an album upfront. Without an overhead fee, if the album makes $3 million gross, the label takes the first $600,000 in earnings, then splits the remaining $2.4 million equally with the artist, so they each get $1.2 million. But if you factor in an overhead fee of 10 percent, the label deducts that amount from the $3 million gross off the top (a fee of $300,000) before dividing up what’s left ($2.1 million) with the artist.The artist takes home half ($1.05 million), and the label takes home half plus the overhead fee ($1.35 million.)

Are there any other hidden fees artists need to worry about?
In addition to an overhead fee, the label might charge its artist a fee for distributing their album on streaming services and manufacturing and selling physical copies of their record. Just like the overhead fee, the distribution fee (which can be as high as 10 percent) is calculated as a cut of an album’s gross earnings, and is taken off the top.

Let’s return, once again, to our earlier example—but now, let’s factor in a 10 percent overhead fee and a 10 percent distribution fee. The album grosses $3 million, and the label takes the first $600,000. There’s a $2.4 million pot of money left over. The label pockets an overhead fee of 10 percent of the gross ($300,000), and an additional distribution fee of 10 percent of the gross ($300,000), reducing that money pot to $1.8 million. They split that with the artist, and both parties get $900,000. But when all is said and done, the artist has netted $900,000, and the label has netted $1.5 million.

To be fair, overhead and distribution fees of 10 percent would be on the very highest end of the spectrum. That said, fees in that range aren’t unheard of.

What’s up with the artist’s masters?
Most likely, the label owns them—just like in a royalty deal or a 360 deal. While it’s technically possible for an artist to negotiate ownership of their masters, it’s very rare.

I see. That’s not ideal, but all in all, this sounds way better than a standard royalty or 360 deal.
Absolutely—but that’s assuming the profit split is close to 50/50, the distribution and overhead fees aren’t too high, and there aren’t any other hidden fees worked into the contract. As is the case with any record deal, whether a net profit deal is “good” or “bad” depends on the fine print.

So what’s the solution?

While some deal structures are inherently more equitable than others (a net profit deal versus a standard royalty deal, for instance), there’s no getting around the fact that the odds are stacked against most artists from the get-go. Artists find themselves deep in the red before they’ve even arrived in the studio to record, and their only path to profitability is to hit lofty streaming and sales targets that, for most artists, are simply unhittable. That’s the “industry standard,” at least—but it doesn’t have to be that way.

Labels could choose to write mandatory renegotiations into contracts that enable artists to bargain for better terms; they could eliminate one-sided option clauses; they could tilt percentages in their artists’ favor; they could stop quietly charging them fees and deductions that only well-trained lawyers can sniff out, and that seem to be disproportionately slipped into Black artists’ contracts. In other words, they could reform themselves, bowing to the demands artists have been asking of them for years, from Prince to Kanye West. But until that day comes—if it ever does—it’s incumbent on artists to avoid being kneecapped by hidden provisions that make it all but impossible for them to earn money from their music.

The only way to do that, it seems, is for an artist to avoid signing a contract as soon as it’s presented to them, and first hire the best lawyer they possibly can. Without a stellar attorney representing them, there’s no limit to how badly a label can rip an artist off—but with one, artists are better equipped to eliminate exploitative conditions from their contracts, negotiate better percentages for themselves, and ensure they don’t get locked into something they can’t walk away from. An artist could spend months researching record contracts and memorizing all the obscure, convoluted terms that govern them—but at the end of the day, there’s nothing more important than making sure they have an experienced attorney on their side.

“They should obtain a good lawyer before they even think about signing anything,” Butler said. “On every deal point, you can be taken advantage of without an attorney. Entertainment lawyers know what to look for.”

For an even more in-depth breakdown of how music licensing and contracts work, read our comprehensive cheat-sheet here.

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

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World

All the products we found to be the best during our testing this year

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(CNN) —  

Throughout the year, CNN Underscored is constantly testing products — be it coffee makers or headphones — to find the absolute best in each respective category.

Our testing process is rigorous, consisting of hours of research (consulting experts, reading editorial reviews and perusing user ratings) to find the top products in each category. Once we settle on a testing pool, we spend weeks — if not months — testing and retesting each product multiple times in real-world settings. All this in an effort to settle on the absolute best products.

So, as we enter peak gifting season, if you’re on the hunt for the perfect gift, we know you’ll find something on this list that they (or you!) will absolutely love.

Coffee

Best burr coffee grinder: Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder With Digital Timer Display ($249; amazon.com or walmart.com)

Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder
Baratza Virtuoso+ Conical Burr Grinder

Beginner baristas and coffee connoisseurs alike will be pleased with the Baratza Virtuoso+, a conical burr grinder with 40 settings for grind size, from super fine (espresso) to super coarse (French press). The best coffee grinder we tested, this sleek look and simple, intuitive controls, including a digital timer, allow for a consistent grind every time — as well as optimal convenience.

Read more from our testing of coffee grinders here.

Best drip coffee maker: Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker ($79.95; amazon.com)

Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker
Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker

During our testing of drip coffee makers, we found the Braun KF6050WH BrewSense Drip Coffee Maker made a consistently delicious, hot cup of coffee, brewed efficiently and cleanly, from sleek, relatively compact hardware that is turnkey to operate, and all for a reasonable price.

Read more from our testing of drip coffee makers here.

Best single-serve coffee maker: Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus ($165; originally $179.95; amazon.com)

Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus
Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus

Among all single-serve coffee makers we tested, the Breville-Nespresso VertuoPlus, which uses pods that deliver both espresso and “regular” coffee, could simply not be beat for its convenience. Intuitive and a snap to use right out of the box, it looks sleek on the counter, contains a detached 60-ounce water reservoir so you don’t have to refill it with each use and delivers perfectly hot, delicious coffee with a simple tap of a lever and press of a button.

Read more from our testing of single-serve coffee makers here.

Best coffee subscription: Blue Bottle (starting at $11 per shipment; bluebottlecoffee.com)

Blue Bottle coffee subscription
Blue Bottle coffee subscription

Blue Bottle’s coffee subscription won us over with its balance of variety, customizability and, most importantly, taste. We sampled both the single-origin and blend assortments and loved the flavor of nearly every single cup we made. The flavors are complex and bold but unmistakably delicious. Beyond its coffee, Blue Bottle’s subscription is simple and easy to use, with tons of options to tailor to your caffeine needs.

Read more from our testing of coffee subscriptions here.

Best cold brewer coffee maker: Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot ($25; amazon.com)

Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot
Hario Mizudashi Cold Brew Coffeepot

This sleek, sophisticated and streamlined carafe produces 1 liter (about 4 1/4 cups) of rich, robust brew in just eight hours. It was among the simplest to assemble, it executed an exemplary brew in about the shortest time span, and it looked snazzy doing it. Plus, it rang up as the second-most affordable of our inventory.

Read more from our testing of cold brew makers here.

Kitchen essentials

Best nonstick pan: T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid ($39.97; amazon.com)

T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid
T-fal E76597 Ultimate Hard Anodized Nonstick Fry Pan With Lid

If you’re a minimalist and prefer to have just a single pan in your kitchen, you’d be set with the T-fal E76597. This pan’s depth gives it multipurpose functionality: It cooks standard frying-pan foods like eggs and meats, and its 2 1/2-inch sides are tall enough to prepare recipes you’d usually reserve for pots, like rices and stews. It’s a high-quality and affordable pan that outperformed some of the more expensive ones in our testing field.

Read more from our testing of nonstick pans here.

Best blender: Breville Super Q ($499.95; breville.com)

Breville Super Q
Breville Super Q

With 1,800 watts of motor power, the Breville Super Q features a slew of preset buttons, comes in multiple colors, includes key accessories and is touted for being quieter than other models. At $500, it does carry a steep price tag, but for those who can’t imagine a smoothie-less morning, what breaks down to about $1.30 a day over a year seems like a bargain.

Read more from our testing of blenders here.

Best knife set: Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set ($119.74; amazon.com)

Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set
Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set

The Chicago Cutlery Fusion 17-Piece Knife Block Set sets you up to easily take on almost any cutting job and is a heck of a steal at just $119.97. Not only did the core knives included (chef’s, paring, utility and serrated) perform admirably, but the set included a bevy of extras, including a full set of steak knives. We were blown away by their solid construction and reliable execution for such an incredible value. The knives stayed sharp through our multitude of tests, and we were big fans of the cushion-grip handles that kept them from slipping, as well as the classic look of the chestnut-stained wood block. If you’re looking for a complete knife set you’ll be proud of at a price that won’t put a dent in your savings account, this is the clear winner.

Read more from our testing of knife sets here.

Audio

Best true wireless earbuds: AirPods Pro ($199, originally $249; amazon.com)

Apple AirPods Pro
Apple AirPods Pro

Apple’s AirPods Pro hit all the marks. They deliver a wide soundstage, thanks to on-the-fly equalizing tech that produces playback that seemingly brings you inside the studio with the artist. They have the best noise-canceling ability of all the earbuds we tested, which, aside from stiff-arming distractions, creates a truly immersive experience. To sum it up, you’re getting a comfortable design, a wide soundstage, easy connectivity and long battery life.

Read more from our testing of true wireless earbuds here.

Best noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($278, originally $349.99; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound, but phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

Read more from our testing of noise-canceling headphones here.

Best on-ear headphones: Beats Solo 3 ($119.95, originally $199.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo 3
Beats Solo 3

The Beats Solo 3s are a phenomenal pair of on-ear headphones. Their sound quality was among the top of those we tested, pumping out particularly clear vocals and instrumentals alike. We enjoyed the control scheme too, taking the form of buttons in a circular configuration that blend seamlessly into the left ear cup design. They are also light, comfortable and are no slouch in the looks department — more than you’d expect given their reasonable $199.95 price tag.

Read more from our testing of on-ear headphones here.

Beauty

Best matte lipstick: Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick ($11, originally $22; amazon.com or $22; nordstrom.com and stilacosmetics.com)

Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick
Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick

The Stila Stay All Day Liquid Lipstick has thousands of 5-star ratings across the internet, and it’s easy to see why. True to its name, this product clings to your lips for hours upon hours, burritos and messy breakfast sandwiches be damned. It’s also surprisingly moisturizing for such a superior stay-put formula, a combo that’s rare to come by.

Read more from our testing of matte lipsticks here.

Best everyday liquid liner: Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner ($22; stilacosmetics.com or macys.com)

Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner
Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner

The Stila Stay All Day Waterproof Liquid Eyeliner is a longtime customer favorite — hence its nearly 7,500 5-star reviews on Sephora — and for good reason. We found it requires little to no effort to create a precise wing, the liner has superior staying power and it didn’t irritate those of us with sensitive skin after full days of wear. As an added bonus, it’s available in a whopping 12 shades.

Read more from our testing of liquid eyeliners here.

Work-from-home essentials

Best office chair: Steelcase Series 1 (starting at $381.60; amazon.com or $415, wayfair.com)

Steelcase Series 1
Steelcase Series 1

The Steelcase Series 1 scored among the highest overall, standing out as one of the most customizable, high-quality, comfortable office chairs on the market. At $415, the Steelcase Series 1 beat out most of its pricier competitors across testing categories, scoring less than a single point lower than our highest-rated chair, the $1,036 Steelcase Leap, easily making it the best bang for the buck and a clear winner for our best office chair overall.

Read more from our testing of office chairs here.

Best ergonomic keyboard: Logitech Ergo K860 ($129.99; logitech.com)

Logitech Ergo K860
Logitech Ergo K860

We found the Logitech Ergo K860 to be a phenomenally comfortable keyboard. Its build, featuring a split keyboard (meaning there’s a triangular gap down the middle) coupled with a wave-like curvature across the body, allows both your shoulders and hands to rest in a more natural position that eases the tension that can often accompany hours spent in front of a regular keyboard. Add the cozy palm rest along the bottom edge and you’ll find yourself sitting pretty comfortably.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic keyboards here.

Best ergonomic mouse: Logitech MX Master 3 ($99.99; logitech.com)

Logitech MX Master 3
Logitech MX Master 3

The Logitech MX Master 3 is an unequivocally comfortable mouse. It’s shaped to perfection, with special attention to the fingers that do the clicking. Using it felt like our fingers were lounging — with a sculpted ergonomic groove for nearly every finger.

Read more from our testing of ergonomic mice here.

Best ring light: Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light ($25.99; amazon.com)

Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light
Emart 10-Inch Selfie Ring Light

The Emart 10-Inch Standing Ring Light comes with a tripod that’s fully adjustable — from 19 inches to 50 inches — making it a great option whether you’re setting it atop your desk for video calls or need some overhead lighting so no weird shadows creep into your photos. Its three light modes (warm, cool and a nice mix of the two), along with 11 brightness levels (among the most settings on any of the lights we tested), ensure you’re always framed in the right light. And at a relatively cheap $35.40, this light combines usability and affordability better than any of the other options we tested.

Read more from our testing of ring lights here.

Home

Best linen sheets: Parachute Linen Sheet Set (starting at $149; parachute.com)

Parachute Linen Sheets
Parachute Linen Sheets

Well made, luxurious to the touch and with the most versatile shopping options (six sizes, nine colors and the ability to order individual sheets), the linen sheets from Parachute were, by a narrow margin, our favorite set. From the satisfying unboxing to a sumptuous sleep, with a la carte availability, Parachute set the gold standard in linen luxury.

Read more from our testing of linen sheets here.

Best shower head: Kohler Forte Shower Head (starting at $74.44; amazon.com)

Kohler Forte Shower Head
Kohler Forte Shower Head

Hands down, the Kohler Forte Shower Head provides the best overall shower experience, offering three distinct settings. Backstory: Lots of shower heads out there feature myriad “settings” that, when tested, are pretty much indecipherable. The Forte’s three sprays, however, are each incredibly different and equally successful. There’s the drenching, full-coverage rain shower, the pulsating massage and the “silk spray” setting that is basically a super-dense mist. The Forte manages to achieve all of this while using only 1.75 gallons per minute (GPM), making it a great option for those looking to conserve water.

Read more from our testing of shower heads here.

Best humidifier: TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier (starting at $49.99; amazon.com)

TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier
TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier

The TaoTronics Cool Mist Humidifier ramped up the humidity in a room in about an hour, which was quicker than most of the options we tested. More importantly, though, it sustained those humidity levels over the longest period of time — 24 hours, to be exact. The levels were easy to check with the built-in reader (and we cross-checked that reading with an external reader to confirm accuracy). We also loved how easy this humidifier was to clean, and the nighttime mode for the LED reader eliminated any bright lights in the bedroom.

Read more from our testing of humidifiers here.

Video

Best TV: TCL 6-Series (starting at $579.99; bestbuy.com)

TCL 6-Series
TCL 6-Series

With models starting at $599.99 for a 55-inch, the TCL 6-Series might give you reverse sticker shock considering everything you get for that relatively small price tag. But can a 4K smart TV with so many specification standards really deliver a good picture for $500? The short answer: a resounding yes. The TCL 6-Series produces a vibrant picture with flexible customization options and handles both HDR and Dolby Vision, optimization standards that improve the content you’re watching by adding depth to details and expanding the color spectrum.

Read more from our testing of TVs here.

Best streaming device: Roku Ultra ($99.99; amazon.com)

Roku Ultra
Roku Ultra

Roku recently updated its Ultra streaming box and the 2020 version is faster, thanks to a new quad-core processor. The newest Ultra retains all of the features we loved and enjoyed about the 2019 model, like almost zero lag time between waking it up and streaming content, leading to a hiccup-free streaming experience. On top of that, the Roku Ultra can upscale content to deliver the best picture possible on your TV — even on older-model TVs that don’t offer the latest and greatest picture quality — and supports everything from HD to 4K.

Read more from our testing of streaming devices here.

Travel

Best carry-on luggage: Away Carry-On ($225; away.com)

Away Carry-On
Away Carry-On

The Away Carry-On scored high marks across all our tests and has the best combination of features for the average traveler. Compared with higher-end brands like Rimowa, which retail for hundreds more, you’re getting the same durable materials, an excellent internal compression system and eye-catching style. Add in smart charging capabilities and a lifetime warranty, and this was the bag to beat.

Read more from our testing of carry-on luggage here.

Best portable charger: Anker PowerCore 13000 (starting at $31.99; amazon.com)

Anker PowerCore 13000
Anker PowerCore 13000

The Anker PowerCore 13000 shone most was in terms of charging capacity. It boasts 13,000 mAh (maH is a measure of how much power a device puts out over time), which is enough to fully charge an iPhone 11 two and a half times. Plus, it has two fast-charging USB Type-A ports so you can juice a pair of devices simultaneously. While not at the peak in terms of charging capacity, at just $31.99, it’s a serious bargain for so many mAhs.

Read more from our testing of portable chargers here.

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Trump’s misleading tweet about changing your vote, briefly explained

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Searches for changing one’s vote did not trend following the recent presidential debate, and just a few states appear to have processes for changing an early vote. But that didn’t stop President Trump from wrongly saying otherwise on Tuesday.

In early morning posts, the president falsely claimed on Twitter and Facebook that many people had Googled “Can I change my vote?” after the second presidential debate and said those searching wanted to change their vote over to him. Trump also wrongly claimed that most states have a mechanism for changing one’s vote. Actually, just a few states appear to have the ability, and it’s rarely used.

Twitter did not attach a label to Trump’s recent tweet.
Twitter

Trump’s claim about what was trending on Google after the debate doesn’t hold up. Searches for changing one’s vote were not among Google’s top trending searches for the day of the debate (October 22) or the day after. Searches for “Can I change my vote?” did increase slightly around the time of the debate, but there is no way to know whether the bump was related to the debate or whether the people searching were doing so in support of Trump.

It was only after Trump’s posts that searches about changing your vote spiked significantly. It’s worth noting that people were also searching for “Can I change my vote?” during a similar period before the 2016 presidential election.

Google declined to comment on the accuracy of Trump’s post.

Trump also claimed that these results indicate that most of the people who were searching for how to change their vote support him. But the Google Trends tool for the searches he mentioned does not provide that specific information.

Perhaps the most egregiously false claim in Trump’s recent posts is about “most states” having processes for changing your early vote. In fact, only a few states have such processes, and they can come with certain conditions. For instance, in Michigan, voters who vote absentee can ask for a new ballot by mail or in person until the day before the election.

The Center for Election Innovation’s David Becker told the Associated Press that changing one’s vote is “extremely rare.” Becker explained, “It’s hard enough to get people to vote once — it’s highly unlikely anybody will go through this process twice.”

Trump’s post on Facebook was accompanied by a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center.
Facebook

At the time of publication, Trump’s false claims had drawn about 84,000 and 187,000 “Likes” on Twitter and Facebook, respectively. Trump’s posts accelerated searches about changing your vote in places like the swing state of Florida, where changing one’s vote after casting it is not possible. Those numbers are a reminder of the president’s capacity to spread misinformation quickly.

On Facebook, the president’s post came with a label directing people to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, but no fact-checking label. Twitter had no annotation on the president’s post. Neither company responded to a request for comment.

That Trump is willing to spread misinformation to benefit himself and his campaign isn’t a surprise. He does that a lot. Still, just days before a presidential election in which millions have already voted, this latest episode demonstrates that the president has no qualms about using false claims about voting to cause confusion and sow doubt in the electoral process.

Open Sourced is made possible by Omidyar Network. All Open Sourced content is editorially independent and produced by our journalists.


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Nearly 6,000 civilian casualties in Afghanistan so far this year

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From January to September, 5,939 civilians – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded – were casualties of the fighting, the UN says.

Nearly 6,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded in the first nine months of the year as heavy fighting between government forces and Taliban fighters rages on despite efforts to find peace, the United Nations has said.

From January to September, there were 5,939 civilian casualties in the fighting – 2,117 people killed and 3,822 wounded, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said in a quarterly report on Tuesday.

“High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian,” the report said.

Civilian casualties were 30 percent lower than in the same period last year but UNAMA said violence has failed to slow since the beginning of talks between government negotiators and the Taliban that began in Qatar’s capital, Doha, last month.

An injured girl receives treatment at a hospital after an attack in Khost province [Anwarullah/Reuters]

The Taliban was responsible for 45 percent of civilian casualties while government troops caused 23 percent, it said. United States-led international forces were responsible for two percent.

Most of the remainder occurred in crossfire, or were caused by ISIL (ISIS) or “undetermined” anti-government or pro-government elements, according to the report.

Ground fighting caused the most casualties followed by suicide and roadside bomb attacks, targeted killings by the Taliban and air raids by Afghan troops, the UN mission said.

Fighting has sharply increased in several parts of the country in recent weeks as government negotiators and the Taliban have failed to make progress in the peace talks.

At least 24 people , mostly teens, were killed in a suicide bomb attack at an education centre in Kabul [Mohammad Ismail/Reuters]

The Taliban has been fighting the Afghan government since it was toppled from power in a US-led invasion in 2001.

Washington blamed the then-Taliban rulers for harbouring al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden. Al-Qaeda was accused of plotting the 9/11 attacks.

Calls for urgent reduction of violence

Meanwhile, the US envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said on Tuesday that the level of violence in the country was still too high and the Kabul government and Taliban fighters must work harder towards forging a ceasefire at the Doha talks.

Khalilzad made the comments before heading to the Qatari capital to hold meetings with the two sides.

“I return to the region disappointed that despite commitments to lower violence, it has not happened. The window to achieve a political settlement will not stay open forever,” he said in a tweet.

There needs to be “an agreement on a reduction of violence leading to a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”, added Khalilzad.

A deal in February between the US and the Taliban paved the way for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for counterterrorism guarantees from the Taliban, which agreed to sit with the Afghan government to negotiate a permanent ceasefire and a power-sharing formula.

But progress at the intra-Afghan talks has been slow since their start in mid-September and diplomats and officials have warned that rising violence back home is sapping trust.

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