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The Noisey Guide to Deciphering Music Licensing and Contract Terms

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Stories of lawsuits, unpaid royalties and exploitative recording deals are disturbingly common and can put even the most successful artists in dangerous financial positions. Artists like TLC and Toni Braxton were forced to file for bankruptcy, despite having grossed millions in sales, and Salt N’ Pepa, Eazy E, and NWA all publicly experienced similar mistreatment from the companies they trusted with their careers. In March, Megan Thee Stallion warned artists to arm themselves with strong legal representation when dealing with labels, as she battled to renegotiate her recording contract.

The music industry has been set up to benefit corporations and build gates between artists and audiences—gates that are often kept by the same market leaders that control media and technology. The companies in pursuit of music rights usually have entire teams of accountants and attorneys at their disposal, and the only way to level the playing field is to demystify the details behind how the money pie is sliced.

This is a cheat sheet for artists to understand how to build contemporary and competitive deals and for fans to have more of an understanding of the business behind their favorite music.

What is the difference between Master Rights and Publishing Rights?

Recording artists, songwriters, producers, and anyone who breathes life into a song in any capacity are entitled to their piece of intellectual property ownership (also known as “IP”). How writers split their IP, and whether they retain those rights, license them to another party for a limited term, or give up ownership, is their decision.

The two foundational elements of IP in every piece of music are publishing rights and master rights. These two kinds of rights provide the umbrellas under which most revenue is filtered from listeners to artists and songwriters.

  • Publishing rights belong to the writers of a song (“songwriters”). If there are multiple songwriters, publishing rights may be split up.

For example, “Say My Name” has seven songwriters. Beyonce and Kelly Rowland have shares of the song’s publishing rights, as do Latvia Roberson, Letoya Luckett, producers Rodkey Roy Jerkins (Darkchild) and Fred Jerkins (Uncle Freddie), and legendary behind-the-scenes R&B writer LaShawn Daniels. Publishing is split up by percent, so if two songwriters got together and contributed equally to lyrics and composition, the publishing rights would be split evenly, as 50 percent to each writer. In the case of “Say My Name,” seven writers may each have 14.2 percent, or maybe two writers have 25 percent and five writers have 10 percent, but it always adds up to 100 percent.

  • Master Rights belong to the artists and musicians who create a recorded version of a song. When an artist signs to a record label, they generally grant the master rights to that label for a limited period of time, in exchange for the label’s support releasing the music.

For example, Orville Peck’s recorded cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy” belongs to his record label, Columbia, while the Publishing rights to the “Fancy” belong to Gentry herself, the original writer.

So, what does a fair record deal look like?

Record Labels are in the business of financing the recording, production, and marketing of recorded songs, in exchange for the master rights, or the rights to the recordings.

This is how it works:

Decent record labels also open creative doors for artists, connecting like-minded musicians in the studio, clearing samples and assisting with production, providing business perspective, and respecting the creative process.

What is the difference between a Master License and Master Ownership?

  • A Master License means an artist is signing away master rights to a record label either for a set period, for example, two to five years.
  • Master Ownership means an artist is signing away master rights to the record label forever.

In contemporary deals, artists are rarely asked to give away their master ownership. Companies like AWAL advise artists to license their recordings to labels for a limited period of time, rather than giving up their master rights for the life of copyright. But for decades, labels have been able to pen deals with artists swiping control of their recordings in perpetuity.

For example, in late 2020, Kanye West published pieces of his record deal with Universal Music Group that assert the company’s ownership of masters for his first five records in perpetuity. While it’s unclear if West can or will actually give all G.O.O.D. music artists back the 50 percent share of their masters that are owned by the label, the idea that record labels were wrong to go after perpetual master rights is not novel.

What are the different ways you can get paid out for a record deal?

  • Net Profit Deals are record deals in which the label splits a percent of net profits with artists (after all their expenses and advances are recouped). This may look like “Net50,” or fifty percent of all profits, go to the artist once the label recoups their investment.
  • PPD Deals are royalty-based deals seen in traditional recording contracts, and mean the artist is paid on a royalty-per-record basis, in the range of 13 to 17 percent of the “PPD Price” or Published Price to Dealer (essentially the wholesale price).
  • 360 Deals are larger scale deals that entitle records labels to portions of every artist revenue stream imaginable, including touring, merchandise, endorsements, sync and other ancillary revenue like brand partnerships.

When sales are substantial and the label’s costs remain low, artists can end up in a better place with net profit deals than with royalty-based deals. However, in net profit deals, some labels deduct an overhead fee off the top in addition to recouping all costs. So, the label is reimbursed for their investments plus some overhead, and what is left is the “net profit” is divided 50-50.

What are the different levels of exclusivity?

Whether a label owns master rights or not, and regardless of the revenue scenario of any particular deal, another red flag to understand is exclusivity.

  • Exclusive Recording Agreements are record deals in which the label owns every recording created by an artist during the term of the agreement. Non-exclusive record deals, on the other hand, clearly cover a certain number of album or track recordings and give the artist flexibility to record with other artists and labels.
  • Commitment is the number of records the record label has to fund and release. Usually, there is a one-album commitment, but the label builds in their rights to gain control of the works to follow, via the next term.
  • Options are built into record deals to assert a label’s right to future recordings, and an option means those rights to an artist’s next album can be automatically exercised by the label in return for a predetermined cash advance. This restricts artists from leaving their label deal after fulfilling their initial commitment, and keeps them in the deal for another body of work.

Options commonly present obstacles for artists with respect to future records. For example, old school deals saw a lot of three-year, six-album terms with one album commitment from the label, known as “1+5s.” Frank Ocean famously released Endless to fulfill Universal’s option to his next project after signing him before the release of Channel Orange. Days after he fulfilled the option with Endless, he released Blond independently, having escaped his deal by fulfilling his contractual obligations. It’s possible that Ocean increased his profit share from 14 percent to 70 percent of total revenues from Blond in doing so.

  • Cross-Collateralization is a step further into financial danger for artists, concerning options. If a label has the option to release an artist’s next project and cross-collateralize the finances, this means album one may be earning revenue due to the artist, but that revenue is able to be applied to the label’s recoupment of its expenses on album two. Each record has to carry the weight of the others, and each album is less capable of becoming individually profitable for the artist.
  • A non-exclusive master license with a two-year licensing window that sees the artist retaining full master ownership and the lion’s share of sales or streams with a Net Profit structure and limited options is an objectively progressive and “fair” way to work with a label. If an artist owns their own master rights, and doesn’t sign away too much of the music they’ve yet to record, they are in the best position to negotiate with record labels and build generational wealth.

How do advances work?

Recoupment means no money spent on music by a record label is a gift. All costs are recoupable, meaning the artist will pay the label back based on the sales of their records. If a record label offers a $40,000 Artist Advance that is 100 percent recoupable, this means the label takes that forty thousand dollars off the top of sales revenue before an artist can begin collecting royalties.

No matter what kind of recording agreement an artist signs, generally, all advances are recoupable by the label before the artist begins to see any royalty revenue. In most record deals, marketing and promotional costs are no more than fifty percent recoupable by the label.

Last month, a tech startup called Createsafe developed a Record Deal Simulator as a financial modeling tool that allows artists to input the details of their recording deals (advance totals, agreed profit splits or royalty rates, promotional spends). The tool is designed to help artists figure out exactly how many sales and streams are needed for them to pay back their label and begin to see consistent revenue.

If you’re wondering how producers, featured artists, and other collaborators on recordings interact with master rights, collaborators generally work with the main artist or their label to sign Music Producer Agreements or Featured Artist Agreements. These kinds of agreements grant the collaborator upfront compensation and usually a share of revenue from the sales and distribution of the song, commonly referred to as “points on the master.” Either the label or the artist is responsible for reporting record royalties to contributors and producers.

What does a fair music publishing deal look like?

Music Publishers are in the business of financing songwriters and connecting them to writing and licensing opportunities, in exchange for the publishing rights to their songs.

This is how it works:

Music publishers loan artists cash advances and/or monthly draws in exchange for the ability to represent their publishing rights. Where record labels pursue master rights, publishers pursue publishing rights, and both leverage the ability to offer artists money to live while they make their art. Music publishers may also offer demo budgets; just like in label deals, any and all funds are looked at as loans. Music publishers have teams devoted to connecting writers to labels and recording artists, as well as other songwriters. They also often help secure sync placements in TV, film and advertisements to generate revenue.

What is the difference between a “writer share” and “publisher share”?

There are a few different ways publishing deals can be structured, but the most important component to understand is the difference between “writer share” and “publisher share.”

  • Traditional Publishing Deals mean a songwriter grants their control of the “publisher share” of the music they write to the publishing company. According to Songtrust, 100 percent of writer share still belongs to songwriters and should remain with songwriters in this kind of deal.
  • Traditional “Co Pub” Deals mean a publisher gets 50 percent ownership of a songwriter’s publisher’s share when they sign. The songwriter keeps 100 percent of writer’s share, and 50 percent of publisher’s share—75 percent of total publishing royalties.

Artists don’t need an established publisher to publish their songs. According to performing rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC, it’s relatively simple to start your own publishing company and collect publishing revenue yourself.

  • Publishing Administration deals, or admin deals, do not involve handing any ownership over to the publisher. Admin deals help songwriters to keep track of and negotiate royalties and licensing fees. Instead of taking ownership of 50-75 percent of publishing copyright, a publishing administrator may take 15-25 percent revenue for a limited term, and require no transition of ownership, to look after the books and help artists with the fundamentals of publishing.

Distribution: How does music get to stores and streaming services?

Distribution Rights are the rights to sell records to the world, on retail shelves, in digital stores like iTunes, and on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Distribution rights usually belong to whoever controls the master rights to recordings (record labels or artists). Music is distributed physically and digitally, and there are distributors that specialize in either, or both simultaneously.

  • Physical Distribution concerns Vinyl (LPs), CDs, Cassettes, and any material versions of records. Production and manufacturing of these components can be a big job. Selling hundreds of units wholesale to physical retailers like Rough Trade and big box retailers like Target is the kind of work artists and indie labels generally look to distributors to help with. Distributors take an overhead fee of 10 to 25 percent off sales for physical distribution.
  • Digital Distribution concerns the digital versions of records that are uploaded to stores and streaming platforms. Liaising between stores and streaming services, and tapping strong relationships with international streaming companies like Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and Youtube are some of the valuable digital services of distributors. Securing placement on playlists, collecting digital ad revenue and making sure other channels are not infringing on recorded music copyright are all services under the umbrella of digital distribution. The overhead fee distributors take off digital sales is generally less than that of physical, since the distributor is quite literally doing less heavy lifting.

What is a Distribution Deal, and how is it different from other deals?

There are a few different kinds of distribution deals and artists may even be offered distribution-style deals from labels, or directly from distributors, cutting out the label entirely.

Since labels take over such a substantial portion of master rights, distributors have adapted to look like labels while offering less restrictive deals. Some distributors offer label services like radio promotion and publicity, but they’ll usually increase their fees in exchange for offering these services. Some distributors even offer cash advances, like labels, but they also recoup those advances before artists are able to see profit. Even though all the investments are still viewed as loans and distribution fees may climb to over 25 percent, distribution deals generally afford artists higher revenue splits and shorter terms.

Some independent distributors like Tunecore and DistroKid focus on simple, barebones digital distribution to all streaming services and web stores and take minimal fees like 2 percent off the top. Others just require a one-time fee under $100 and allow artists to 100 percent of their full digital revenue. These services may offer help with playlisting and promotion but they don’t have very personalized approaches to working with artists. But they’re good for the bare minimum, for artists who want to develop their promotion strategies collect all the revenue themselves.

Distributors like The Orchard (owned by SONY), ADA (owned by Warner Music Group), and larger independent distributors like EMPIRE focus on distribution deals that include more investment and support and take higher fees off the top.

Painting in broad strokes, a distribution deal is to a label deal what a publishing admin deal is to a publishing deal—a flexible alternative that doesn’t assert as much control over copyright or as high of a fee, but also won’t invest as many resources in building audiences.

Synchronization: How is music licensed for use in TV and film, and who gets the money?

To use a song in media, you need to license the rights to both the master and publishing representatives. This system ensures both the songwriters and recording artists are compensated when a song is used on screen.

  • Synchronization Rights are the rights to use music in TV, film and advertisements. If a film or TV producer wants to use a song in a movie, advertisement or episode, the producer will have to obtain permission from both the master and publishing owners of the song. This is known as obtaining synchronization rights, and the placement of a song in media is known as a sync. Both master and publishing owners or representatives maintain synchronization rights.
  • Most Favored Nations or “MFN” is mentioned frequently in synchronization licenses, and means an equal fee will be paid for master and publishing rights.
  • Performance Rights are secured by television networks and major stadiums and venues, and they are ruled by national performance rights organizations or PRO’s. Whenever an artist’s song is played publicly or broadcasted, royalties are generated, and the PRO’s collect performance royalties on artists behalf and administer them checks. BMI, ASCAP and SESAC are the largest PRO’s in the United States. If an artist signs a publishing or publishing admin deal, performance royalties are looked after by the publisher, who takes a cut.

Synchronization Representation is up to master and publishing owners. Some labels and publishers have internal teams who pitch songs to music supervisors that license music for film, TV and advertisements. If an artist controls their own master and publishing, they may partner with a Sync House or Independent Sync Rep to pitch their music for those opportunities. Sync reps take a 20-25 percent fee from each sync license fee they secure. Sync representation deals do not require exclusivity or assert the sync rep’s ownership of any master or publishing rights.

Royalty Streams: How does music actually make money?

Understanding the roles of labels, publishers, distribution and synchronization is crucial to navigating the economics behind music. There are hundreds of ways artists generate revenue, and music companies interact with artist revenue streams in complicated ways, based on which rights they control.

What are the primary revenue streams?

Whether an artist signs recording, distribution and publishing deals or manages their master and publishing rights independently, they encounter the below core revenue streams.

  • Master Royalty Streams generate revenue to artists and record labels who control master rights.
  • Sales Royalties are generated from physical and digital purchases of records.
  • Streaming Royalties are generated from digital streams on Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play, Youtube RED, Deezer, and all the music platforms in the world. According to Forbes, the per stream rate is somewhere between $0.0006 and $0.0056—a fraction of a penny per listen. So, 1 million streams equates to roughly $5,000.
  • Sync Royalties are generated from TV, film and advertising producers paying for the rights to use master recordings.
  • Publishing Royalty Streams generate revenue to songwriters, or publishers who control publishing rights.
  • Mechanical Royalties are generated from labels licensing the rights to  produce songs in physical and digital form. Record labels that release music in recorded form need permission, in the form of a mechanical license, to sell the recordings. Mechanical royalties are paid by labels to songwriters and publishers. If an artist wants to record a cover of someone else’s song, they (or their label) need a mechanical license from the writers of that song to release their recorded version. This ensures that the original writers continue to monetize their songs being commercially released by other recording artists. These royalties come into play when artists sign to labels. Independent artists who release their own music and own their own master and publishing rights don’t need to pay themselves for mechanical rights, but if an artist is signed to a label and self-published, the label is obligated to pay the artist mechanical royalties.
  • Sync Royalties are generated from TV, film, and advertising producers paying for the rights to use songs.
  • Performance Royalties are generated through performance rights organizations like BMI, ASCAP and SESAC when songs are performed publicly.

Touring, merchandise sales, digital advertising revenue and brand partnerships are some other revenue streams that are generated by artists. All of these revenue streams are sought after in different ways by companies who offer artists advances and support, in exchange for participation in revenue streams. What portion of revenue streams goes to those companies, and for how long of a term, depends on the deals.

There are many more intricacies behind the structure of music deals, including the rights and relationships surrounding artist data as companies find new ways to mine and sell these insights. The list of ways companies capitalize on music is constantly evolving, adapting to artists having more leverage than ever before to connect directly to their fans. While there is a long history of exploitative and restrictive dealmaking in the music business, there are infinite opportunities to support and align with progressive companies that are focused on nurturing artists creatively and professionally.

As an artist, maintaining control of your creative and financial future is the most important part of protecting intellectual property and generational wealth. As a listener, understanding the relationship between the artists you love and the economics behind the music they make, is important to understand.

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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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