Earlier this week, we heard that the Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company in Dadar had shut down. Located in a prime position in the Dadar market, the retail store had for years been the regular spot for those looking for classical, devotional, or Marathi music. Like most owners of old-time music retail outlets, Shyam Waghmode was passionate about the art.
Today, barring a few places dealing in vinyl records and catering to a smaller but devoted clientele, physical music retail has totally vanished. One can access almost everything on digital streaming platforms, but the charm of selecting and purchasing an album has vanished. Even on the part of labels, marketing strategies have changed, and one often depends on word of mouth.
Where have the retails gone?
Here, I shall make a few nostalgic observations about physical music retail, referring to the famous brick-and-mortar stores. These are from a listener’s perspective, without getting into the business aspect of music retail. For many years, the main location for Mumbaikars was Rhythm House in Kala Ghoda, which stocked a large catalogue and also encouraged customers to listen in special corners. This was besides the Hiro Music outlets in Fort and Bandra, besides numerous smaller shops selling cassettes.
Delhi had its own regulars at Rhythm Corner in South Extension, and one also frequented Pyramid in Palika Bazaar, which recorded LPs on blank cassette tapes in a manner that upset the legitimate industry.
The year 1997 changed things when Planet M, Groove, and Hi-Hat were launched in Mumbai. These were large format stores that also sold merchandise, organised mini-events, and album launches, and had separate browsing areas for those who heard serious forms like classical, jazz, and blues.
Elsewhere, Music World became popular in Kolkata, Hyderabad, and Bengaluru. Landmark, which eventually came to Mumbai, had huge footfalls in its Bengaluru store. Sapna Book House in Bengaluru had a large music section. In Pune, Alurkar Music House catered to classical music followers.
As customers, we had our favourites. For me, it was always Rhythm House, even though Planet M and Groove were conveniently situated bang opposite railway stations. In the pre-Internet era, I would often visit Rhythm House just to study the album back covers and note down names of songs, composers, lyricists, or singers. In many ways, it was my research center.
For ghazals and Sufi music, I always visited the store owned by Time Audio in Vile Parle. I would find a new Mehdi Hassan compilation each time, and buy it even if I already had nine songs out of 10. That summarised the fun of collecting music.
Music Retails Around the Globe
Music buying was a regular feature during travel. Abroad, I visited various branches of Virgin Megastore, Tower Records, and House of Music. In India, the Music World outlets served specific purposes – Park Street Kolkata for Rabindra Sangeet and Bengali songs by greats of Hindi cinema music, Banjara Hills Hyderabad for Ilaayaraja and Ghantasala, and Brigade Road Bengaluru for Dr Rajkumar and P.B. Sreenivas.
There was a shop just outside Golden Temple in Amritsar where I would buy Sikh shabads. The mini-malls in Ludhiana stocked Punjabi folk music which was different from commercial bhangra-pop. A nondescript store in Market Building, Bhubaneswar, helped me discover the Oriya genius, Akshaya Mohanty. Each city offered something different, and it didn’t matter whether one knew the language or not.
Another interesting aspect was how we would keep aside specific sums for music purchases. In the early 1990s, much before plastic money became a must, I would keep aside INR 200 for a visit Rhythm House. Cassettes of international music cost INR 60 or INR 45, so I could buy three or four. The challenge was to select music within that budget.
House of Memories
An interesting memory is about how I first met Rhythm House owner Mehmood Curmally in 1992. I was browsing through the Jazz and Blues section and was totally confused about which three albums to buy. I chose saxophonist Stan Getz because I had read in one of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s obituaries that he was a fan. Seeing my confusion, Curmally recommended Live At Montreux by Miles Davis and Quincy Jones. It was one of my most rewarding purchases ever.
The first time I met Waghmode of Maharashtra Watch & Gramophone Company, he mentioned that he liked the music of flutist Ronu Majumdar. Naturally, I was tempted to pick up some of his albums, though I had attended his live shows. At many stores, I ended up picking albums because I saw a random stranger show excitement about it. Impulse purchases had their own charm.
When CDs became popular in the early 2000s, music labels often organised mega sales in large halls. Each CD would cost INR 85 or INR 100, as against the market price of INR 400. The hardcore audiophiles would land up early so that they couldn’t miss out on a single album. Once they paid the bill, they would boast about how they got certain CDs and box sets which others didn’t.
These were just a few pointers to how music shopping was fun in the days of physical retail. At times one would be attracted by a huge Daler Mehndi cut-out outside a store, a Lucky Ali flyer near a CD rack, or simply be tempted by the latest Dil To Pagal Hai song played on the in-house system. There was a structured way of marketing each new release.
Today, in the digital clutter, one has to depend on social media, self-promotion by artistes, or playlists of online streaming platforms. Everything’s within a button’s reach, but you still miss out on a lot. It’s a different ballgame, and it’s much cheaper to subscribe to a platform than it was to buy a CD. Though everyone is used to it and the new system has its inherent advantages, there’s something amiss. As blues legend B.B. King would have sung, the thrill is gone.