For practically no cost, young men on the streets of the Malian capital, Bamako, will put the latest hit songs onto your cell phone or memory stick. They are called “telechargeurs,” or “downloaders.” With limited means to stop the pirating of their songs, musicians are now using the downloaders to promote their work.
When Sidiki Diabaté, the son of Mali’s kora-master Toumani Diabaté, wanted to promote his latest release he did not bother with radio or TV spots. Instead, he sent his manager to Fankélé Diarra Street to see the “telechargeurs.”
The young men crouch over their laptops. They transfer tunes to mobile phones and USB sticks for as little as four cents a song (25 CFA). Sidiki is the most asked for artist.
Playing his music on slow days can draw dozens of customers.
"The street is like a market. If you want to reach people, this is where you go. You can’t sell cassettes and CD's any more. Everyone uses memory cards," said Downloader Alfouseyni Ballo.
Frequent power cuts and a spotty internet that is still too expensive for many Malians have created a niche for the city's tech-savvy youth.
"We know the popular songs, the tunes that make people dance. People are always looking for the latest songs. If I like a particular song, I’ll recommend it," said downloader Aboubacar Coulibaly.
The most popular request is Malian rap.
These days rappers are the only ones, besides religious leaders, who can sell out Bamako’s big stadiums.
And the internet is pushing the African music industry toward new business models, ones that are turning mobile phone companies into the new record labels.
Malian rapper Mylmo recently signed a lucrative sponsorship deal with the mobile provider, Orange Mali. His new releases are only available from Orange, bought by way of Orange mobile money. Other artists have signed up with Malian mobile companies, Malitel or Sotelma.
But not all artists are happy to see their records ripped and shared on the street. The street downloaders do not share their profits.
“If I don’t download it, someone else will,” said Coulibaly. “Some artists still release albums, but with new technology, everything is online. The artists don’t make money selling records anymore, they make money playing concerts."
The Malian Federation of Musicians has struggled to fight pirating. In 2014, the government granted the association a one dollar cut from every SIM card sold by mobile phone companies. But that tax was later overturned in court.
Meanwhile, longstanding record labels like Mali K7 are struggling to compete with the new technology and distribution methods. And musicians rely on weddings, the rare paid gig and, for a lucky few, international tours to earn their living.