A steely silver staircase, walls decked with funky posters leading up to a large room with thumping music, thronging with people of all ages. Welcome to Planet M, a loud, irreverent, audacious brand that caught the fancy of urban India for almost two decades.
With a bright orange ‘M’ placed top of an image of Earth on a purple backdrop made for an instantly recognisable logo, and retail stores that boasted bold, vibrant colours like purple and yellow, Planet M had unique recall value, especially for teens discovering and developing their own taste in music.
From the very beginning, the brand never shied away from owning this loud persona, something that resonated with and reeled in young people in a newly globalising India.
Founded in 1999 by The Times Group, Planet M was the first mega music chain to be launched in India, and was later sold to Next Retail of Videocon Group in 2007. It remained with Videocon until they closed its doors in 2018.
More than just a music store
For listeners, Planet M offered a plethora of choices that local music stores simply couldn’t afford to keep. Rows and rows of well-catalogued CDs that cut across musical genres were made available to a generation that was accessing western pop culture more easily than ever before. Here, they could not only discover new artists but also delve deeper into their own personal tastes.
One of the first large-format music chains to open in the country, it helped in both “fuelling and fulfilling the demand for international music”, says Mumbai-based music journalist Amit Gurbaxani.
“To be honest, the difference between a Planet M and a small store was the same as a huge departmental store and a kirana store. It simply offered a lot more choices,” says Rishabh Sabarwal, a Delhi-based filmmaker, who credits the store with helping him discover artistes like Backstreet Boys, Coldplay, Linkin’ Park and Greenday.
Former business head of Planet M Christy Charles feels the brand was able to redefine what music retail could be by adding in-store experiences like album launches and live performances. He fondly remembers queues and queues of people lining up at their stores on Sundays, eagerly waiting to attend the latest event.
“For every event, there was Planet M. Artistes like Sonu Nigam and Shaan performed live at our stores and gave their fans a glimpse into their lives through Q&As. Such an intimate experience with artistes wasn’t possible anywhere else.”
A unique experience
Although young in its personality, the brand was inclusive of music lovers across ages and genres. One could find a Best of Britney Spears CD on one rack, and a Best Devotional Songs of the Decade on another.
Flagship stores also had Planet Lounge, which had a softer, more mellow vibe, where one could browse western classical, Indian classical and jazz music. Connoisseurs of music would sometimes spend their entire day listening to, discovering and discussing artists and music in the lounge.
A feature that stood out was the music station at every outlet. At these stations, one could pop in a CD and sample an album before actually buying it. Every outlet had four or five booths with headphones plugged into them. “The music booths were the best part, standing there grooving to the same music as the person next to you was really fun,” says Shivi Verma, an advertising professional. “You could rely on Planet M to help you discover new music, no matter where you were in your music journey.”
Losing touch with music
With the arrival of the internet and, later, smartphones, the brick-and-mortar aspect of music retail got phased out soon. Consumer habits changed drastically, and people switched over to downloading and sharing songs. Discovering and storing music became quicker and more convenient than ever before.
“The art of physically finding the right kind of music, taking every CD in your hands and reading about the album beforehand just died the moment people had everything on their screens,” says Sanjay Karwa, former CEO of Planet M.
In the early stages of digital music becoming popular, Napster and Limewire proved to be easy, popular platforms. “Earlier, if we heard a nice song at a friend’s place, we’d ask for it. They’d record it on a tape and give it to us. It was a lot of effort, but that was the beauty of it. It added to the value of every song,” says Aditi Sobti, an advertising professional in Gurgaon.
“The internet made things easier, so we naturally shifted to it, but it definitely robbed us of a more intimate experience while listening to music.”
The struggle to stay relevant
Music’s brick-and-mortar shops didn’t run out of fashion overnight, but the decline in its market was just as drastic as the meteoric rise of the world wide web. To stay relevant, Planet M diversified and began to also sell mobile phones and accessories, toys, MP3 Players, iPods, gaming consoles and other lifestyle products.
“I remember, back in 2002, rushing to the nearest Planet M with my friends to try the latest games on the brand new Sony PS2. This experience wasn’t possible anywhere else,” recalls Sunny Chheda, a Mumbai-based Teach For India professional. Hardly ever visiting the store to buy music from them, he’d visit the store to buy phones and games in the later years of the brand.
“We even collaborated with smaller shops across towns for movie rentals. That yielded certain dividends for a while,” Karwa points out.
These attempts, though effective for a while, weren’t enough in the long run. Soon games, too, lost their edge as a retail favourite as they became available on the cloud, ready to be downloaded.
In the face of such a momentous change in music and movie consumption, the young brand of hardly 20 years had to shut shop in 2018.
The people behind the brand recall that it was a heart-breaking decision. “Digital came at a lightning speed and left us with no space. All of us knew it was time to pack up. The brand was very close to my heart, but there was nothing more we could do,” recalls Charles.
For its loyal customers and music buffs, though, Planet M will always be an integral part of their journey. “I listened to my first Backstreet Boys song in their music station,” says Rishabh. “Collecting CDs, DVDs, vinyls, cassettes is a hobby I still have and I was able to cultivate it because of Planet M, where I practically spent half my childhood.”