Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


THE year was 1999. Till then, the iconic Kala Ghoda music store Rhythm House literally held ‘Fort’. The only competition, by a large distance, was Hiro Music. But the sudden entry of megastores like Planet M near CST, Groove at Churchgate and Hi-Hat in Khar threatened to change the Mumbai scenario.

After six decades in the business, Rhythm House is planning to close operations early next year. It has survived all odds much longer than the later entrants, and the news has shocked all who patronised it. Soon, there will be no super-large outlets left to buy physical music formats like compact discs and DVDs. Digital formats and online retail have taken over.

Who’s to blame? What has destroyed brick-and-mortar music retail in India? Broadly, we can look at two areas – how the stores operated and the way consumer mentality has changed.

Let’s go back 16 years. Most new stores modeled themselves on international biggies like HMV, Tower Records and Virgin Megastore. When they came in, their property was larger and they tried unique marketing methods. Earlier, music buffs had to go all the way to Kala Ghoda, but now they had more options in terms of locality.

The new stores had a huge and wide range of titles, satisfying hardcore collectors. They would encourage browsing, which would also lead to more impulse purchases. And they had some fantastic offers to lure customers. Groove and Planet M had special rooms for ‘serious’ audiences who listened to western classical, jazz, blues and Indian classical music. Groove had a stage where musicians performed and video concerts were screened. Most stores became venues for album launches and talent competitions.

The megastore concept wasn’t restricted to Mumbai. Planet M went multi-city. The Music World chain, started a few months before Planet M in 1999, reported great success from its Kolkata, Chennai, Kochi and Bangalore stores. In the 2000s, Landmark and Reliance TimeOut started multi-vertical stores – books, music and other categories like toys, gifts and stationery. Book stores like Crossword and Sapna Book House had large music sections. Medium-sized stores like Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar specialised in Indian classical music.

The problem with the large music stores, however, was that one had to fill them completely, with the right music. This often led to over-stacking – a classic case being Landmark at High Street Phoenix. It had probably every western classical composition one could dream of, but hardly anybody bought.

Staff training was also a key element. Service plays a paramount role, and besides being deeply knowledgeable about genres, salespersons have to understand customer tastes. They need the ability to recommend additional purchases on the basis of what customers are already planning to buy. This was largely missing, except in Rhythm House, Groove and some TimeOut stores like Bangalore and Gurgaon.

The combination of high rentals, unsold stocks, falling margins and rising audio piracy affected operations. Hi-Hat and Groove shut down years ago, and two years ago, Music World and TimeOut announced their exit. Other stores changed strategies. Planet M sold mobile phones and Landmark forgot the word ‘music’. Only Rhythm House retained its image and customer loyalty, and Maharashtra Watch continues to sell classical music.

The market had changed. What happened in India wasn’t too different from what occurred internationally. Over the past decade, changing audience preferences created a negative impact. From hi-fi audio systems, listening platforms moved to computers, iPods and mobile phones.

Downloading became a fad. Rather than waste shelf space on CDs and read printed inlay cards, people preferred storing music on their laptops or iPods, and Googling for information. Those who visited stores made fewer impulse purchases, and often jotted lists of albums they could get online.

Many opted for free music and movies, though some bought them legally. Through YouTube, one could get the rarest songs without paying a penny. If music television and FM radio were earlier used to promote singles from albums, people today just listen to whatever is played. Who wants albums?

With online retail increasing, one can get CDs and even vinyl records delivered home, instead of travelling to the store. The limited number of vinyl record buyers get their stuff from smaller outlets. The concept of file sharing has gained prominence. Use a pen drive or post Adele’s song ‘Hello’ on Facebook or WhatsApp, and everyone joins the party. Or simply have a nice music app on your Smartphone. Even Saregama India aka HMV recently launched its Classical App as physical sales were slow.

Sensing the changing consumer preferences, music labels also altered strategy. Many international albums were released only in digital format or imported in small numbers, as against the earlier practice of locally manufacturing in bulk. Bollywood and other Indian music labels cut down on physical volumes, and switched to digital platforms.

In such a scenario, how can the music megastore survive? Convenience has replaced ambience. Giga-bytes have tera-bitten the physical music industry. Brick-and-mortar stores have been clicked-and-murdered.

Hats off to Rhythm House for being there so long. The least one can do in tribute is stop downloading free music. Have some conscience, folks.


Comments on: "Why and how giant music retail stores collapsed in India" (8)

  1. Milind Vartak said:

    I agree its sad to see iconic landmarks like Rhythm House shutting shop. But the harsh reality is that the convenience of the digital format rules over sentiments. I shopped a lot at Rhythm House and will be sad to see it close. I am sure that many more will share this thought. Wishing all at RH the very best. Thank You for the Music 🙂

  2. Kishor Merchant said:

    Maharashtra Watch at Dadar still keeps CDs, hope they can survive a few years more. Truly Rhythm House has catered to more than 4 generations of music lovers. Free or even a much less payment for individual tracks is available on line so the purchase of music of all genres has been hit. Will it also lead to artists not releasing new stuff in future and use new tracks only during live concerts is to be seen in the future.

    • Hi Kishor
      Thanks for the feedback. I hadn’t included Maharashtra Watch as I was mainly referring to large format stores. But yes it does merit a mention so have added

  3. Hi Naren: In all this, I believe that thanks are due to Mehmood Curmally, a director at Rhythm House, for supporting niche genres and promoting lesser known artistes – through the years – while I was part of the mainstream music business. Further, your point of music labels ensuring a global release date digitally is well taken as I pre-ordered the CD of Adele’s ’25’, which had a global launch date on November 20, but received it only earlier this week!

  4. Hi Naren,

    Just came across your article on the Hindu today and ended up here.
    Agreed that piracy is bad in the overall food chain, but growing up on dial up connection, the only way for me to be able to explore music ( with limited pocket money and collections in planet m / music worlds) was to download music on many many platforms. Thanks to that I have had the opportunity to listen to a large variety of music which was great.
    Now I have use Spotify ( with a vpn ) with a subscription and continue my journey exploring more music at my fingertips. Can we really call it unethical ?

    • Thanks for your mail Rivika
      I understand what you say but as long as one is paying for what one hears it definitely isn’t unethical. That may not be always possible in today’s scenario specially when music is accessible on YouTube and through file-sharing. But the fact is that the industry is losing out on huge revenues because of this trend. There are now alternate means of releasing music but the earnings are nowhere the same. Musicians thus concentrate on shows where the money is still big. It’s trend that has taken place with the times. There are advantages like, as you said, one can access more types of music and more artistes. But a lot of these artistes will go nowhere unless they get a return on what they are here for.
      Not that it is new, in the 1970s and 1980s, people used to record albums on blank cassettes – there too it was a loss for the industry. Piracy was rampant, where some companies released the same music and sold at a lesser price without giving credit or reimbursement to the original musicians. Having said that those who have seen the way the industry has progressed or have been associated with the industry will identify more strongly with the change.
      Keep in touch

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