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Piracy Forces Malawi Artists into Streets to Sell Their Own Music

  • Lameck Masina

Thocco Katimba, a gospel artist who sells his own music. (Photo courtesy of Thocco Katimba)

Thocco Katimba, a gospel artist who sells his own music. (Photo courtesy of Thocco Katimba)

In reaction to the growing problem of music piracy, more and more local musicians in Malawi are taking their products directly to the street to cut out the middle man. City authorities, however, are expressing concern about noise pollution as the musicians use loudspeakers to advertise.

Despite massive airplay and growing popularity for local music on the country's radio stations and in the clubs, life has not been that rosy for the musicians. Most of them have been living far below their fame.

“The main problem here in Malawi is piracy. Honestly, it has been a very tough journey for us, the musicians, because one may come up with a very good album, you will find that it’s almost everywhere in the country and the neighboring countries, but if you look at yourself what you have achieved by doing that, you will find that it’s literally nothing,” said Thocco Katimb, a local musician.

Fingers have long been pointed at music distributors - middle men who sell the music on behalf of the artists. The musicians accuse the distributors of making copies for personal gain, an allegation distributors have persistently denied.

Despite the denials, many musicians, including gospel artist Katimba, have cut ties with the distributors and are going into the street to sell their own music. Another artist who has done so is Lloyd Phiri.

“Basically I would say that I have sold 17,000 CDs from the new album. Whilst previously I was selling like 2,000 copies per album and I was not getting the monies in cash. It’s like these vendors were making more copies for themselves so if I go to them they would say, ‘ah no, come tomorrow, bra, bra, bra.’ This time… we are making money,” said Phiri.

Officials of the Copyright Society of Malawi (COSOMA) say musicians who are selling their own music risk being prosecuted and fined because they do not put copyright sticker holograms on their products, which COSOMA claims is contrary to the 1989 Copyright Act.

“The law says each work that goes to the market shall have an adhesive label. It shall be an infringement of copyright where the manufacturer exhibits or sells without an adhesive label,” said Rosario Kamanga, the senior licensing officer for COSOMA.

Kamanga also cautions artists that selling music without the hologram brings the risk of being denied help or protection from COSOMA if their music is pirated, as they will have no basis of substantiating their claim.

Phiri thinks the warning is overblown.

“They want money, simple. Because if they put their hologram on our music, it’s like we are telling them to go out and protect our music but basically I haven’t enjoyed their services to be honest. So what they are doing now is that they are stranded. They were getting money when we go buy their holograms,” said Phiri.

Meanwhile, city authorities are accusing the musicians of violating legislation on noise pollution by using loudspeakers along city streets to sell their music.

This follows complaints from some business operators about what they say is the ‘irritating noise’ the musicians make.

Sylvester Matini-Nkhoma, the director of leisure, culture and environmental services for the Blantyre City Council, says action is forthcoming.

“The bylaws governing pollution in the city of Blantyre say that we are not supposed to produce noise in public places unless permission is granted by the Blantyre City Council. And as such we are aware of such practice, so we will be taking them to task and discuss with them to find a common ground,” said Matini-Nkhoma.

Critics say the city authorities are likely to lose the battle on noise pollution as the bylaws do not specify sound level limits for various areas.

Matini-Nkhoma also told VOA of a major challenge: the city council does not have equipment to measure sound levels. This, he said, will likely affect the enforcement of the bylaws on noise pollution.