November 26, 2018

Opening act: Alumnus rocks Middle East with Rolling Stone

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At 19 years old, Waref Hawasli ’06 was managing a band from his college dorm room. By 23, his passion for handling artists had inspired dreams of becoming music’s Jerry Maguire. By 27, he was the founding publisher of Rolling Stone Middle East magazine.

Ten years and thousands of miles later, Hawasli’s passion for music and his entrepreneurial drive continue to blare. The Wayne State University alumnus recently launched Opnr — a website and app that help local musicians find gigs — with support from TechTown Detroit, the WSU-affiliated business incubator.

“The most important thing to me has always been to connect musicians with opportunities and help them grow,” says Hawasli, now 36. “I’ve always gravitated toward challenging myself, and supporting the independent music community has been my greatest professional challenge.”

Hawasli came to Wayne State in 2000, transferring after one year to Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. It was there, inside his tiny dorm room, that he spent three years managing his friend’s alternative rock band, The Slight Eccentric. He loved everything about being a manager, promoter and booking agent, working to help someone else achieve their musical aspirations. One of the band’s biggest claims to fame was opening for hip-hop group the Roots during a tour that brought them to campus.

“I remember sitting back and thinking, ‘I don’t think it’s going to get any bigger than this.’ It was a huge milestone; where do you go from there?” Hawasli says. “Then my mind started spinning — I need to sign more bands, I want to start a booking agency, book more shows and so on. The bug really spiked into me. I wanted to be Jerry Maguire, but for music, in the respect of genuinely caring for the person you’re representing and also being a shark for them.”

As The Slight Eccentric’s manager, Hawasli created a website (not yet a staple for bands in 2001), handled promotions, sent CD press kits to venues, and even personally funded studio time using tips he’d earned working the door at a local bar. He was serious about it. So serious that Hawasli even printed up contracts he’d found online.

Man smiling
Wayne State alumnus and serial entrepreneur Waref Hawasli has been involved in promoting music since he was 19 years old. His recent endeavor, Opnr, is an app built to connect local musicians with concert organizers looking for support for their local events.

“At 19, I’m sitting across the table from other 19-year-olds and having them sign contracts,” Hawasli says. “I was already, somehow, built in a way where I loved business and the experience behind the day-to-day operation as an entrepreneur. You either wake up, do nothing, and you achieve nothing. Or you wake up, you grind, and at the end of the day you’ve maybe made one positive step forward.”

After spending three years at Miami University, all the while managing the band, Hawasli came back to Detroit for personal and professional reasons. He re-enrolled in Wayne State and in 2006 earned a bachelor’s in psychology — but only after testing the waters in pre-med, political science and English.

“Psychology was the best fit for me. I’ve applied a lot of the things I learned through the psychology degree to my everyday business relationships and life in general,” he says. “You learn that everyone’s different. You can’t put anyone in a specific category or box. You have to feel out a conversation. From there, you live, learn and move forward.”

After graduation, Hawasli applied to several law schools and was accepted by a few. He had a small window of time before school began that fall. His sense of wanderlust took over and he decided to take a quick vacation to visit his brother in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At least, he thought it would be quick.

Rock the Casbah

What was planned to be a two-week visit turned into nearly eight years.

“Dubai was just supposed to be a short trip,” Hawasli says. “But it was phenomenal. For all the activity that was happening in Dubai, there was a lack of it happening in Detroit at that time. I have always been an advocate of Detroit, which I know everyone says today. I started at Wayne State and eventually graduated from Wayne State. I lived at Harbortown for many years. I wanted to stay here in Michigan. But my DNA is built as an entrepreneur and there were more exciting opportunities in Dubai at the time.”

After making the permanent move to Dubai, Hawasli started his own publishing and creative company and launched FYI Dubai, a guide to all things happening in the city. After some success, Hawasli knew he needed a stronger brand for the company’s publishing arm. In 2008, at 26 years old, he decided to spearhead the acquisition of the Rolling Stone license. He’ll never forget the cold call he made to the magazine’s publisher, Wenner Media.

“I told them I was a publisher from Dubai and that I wanted to license the brand in the Middle East. The person on the other end laughed and asked if I thought it was going to be successful here, especially given the magazine’s provocative edge,” Hawasli says. “I knew it was going to be a challenge, but exciting, to bring a brand like Rolling Stone and find a way to embed it within this culture.”

Man sitting
In 2008, at 26 years old, Hawasli decided to spearhead the acquisition of the Rolling Stone license.

From that initial conversation, it took nearly a year and a half for Hawasli to secure the license and become CEO and publisher of Rolling Stone Middle East. November 2010 was the magazine’s first issue, and on its cover was Kanye West, who was performing in Dubai around that time. Hawasli admits that if he could go back, he would have put a Middle Eastern band on that first cover.

“I thought the smartest approach would be to use universal popular culture, which would naturally sell more magazines and bring in more advertisers,” Hawasli says. “And it worked. But what it didn’t do is what I do today — immediately connect with the community.”

As Hawasli continued to grow the magazine, he made it a point to distinguish the publication with exclusive coverage of Arab music, hip-hop and rock ’n’ roll. And although his goal was not to rock the boat politically, Hawasli didn’t shy away from making tough decisions on censorship, especially in a region where one must be highly sensitive to cultural conventions.

Indeed, that situation arose when Hawasli’s editors approached him with a dilemma. They placed on his desk two versions of a cover that included singer Rihanna. In the photo, she wore very revealing cutoff shorts. One option was the original. The other was a censored version that his art director had created. They asked what he wanted to do.

“This was my first big decision in the Middle East. It is an incredibly culturally sensitive environment. I could get flagged. I could get fined. I could get shut down,” Hawasli says. “I told them to run Rihanna as is. They asked if I was serious. I said, ‘I will deal with what happens.’”

Hawasli was fined $2,000 by government officials in charge of censorship. Virgin Megastores called him and said they had to remove the issue from their shelves because of complaints. But, as the saying goes, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. It was Rolling Stone Middle East’s biggest seller to that point. Hawasli continued to develop the publication’s brand strategy and editorial team, happy with the success he helped create.

Magazine covers
Hawasli put a well-known American artist on his first cover but quickly began featuring regional bands such as Mashrou' Leila.

Despite that success, Hawasli saw a huge gap in the UAE market for music lovers keen on discovering emerging bands and enjoying unique experiences. Out of that, he created the All Access concept (AAX). It consisted of an annual membership that would offer four free private concerts a year and discounted tickets to two or three other shows. Members would also get a year’s subscription to Rolling Stone delivered to their door, along with perks such as access to VIP areas at concerts, cultural experiences and meet-and-greets.

“I remember rolling out the first AAX experience in December 2012 to test my theory,” he says. “From that night on, I was even more driven in taking Rolling Stone to a different level.”

AAX was only touching the surface of his bigger vision. He knew the direction the publishing industry was headed and wanted to make Rolling Stone a lifestyle brand, not just a magazine, in the Middle East. He had plans to develop a larger integrated brand vision that involved terrestrial and digital radio, clothing, a live music venue, ticketing, concert promotions, and a streaming TV channel.

“My vision was to create a community and cultural movement around Rolling Stone and allow the brand to breathe and flourish outside of publishing,” Hawasli says. “In my eyes, it was the only way forward.”

Hawasli devoted almost a full year to development and research. In late 2013, he pitched the full vision to Rolling Stone’s home office in New York. After six months of internal discussion, they ultimately declined Hawasli’s request. The explanation was that since Rolling Stone was not doing most of these brand extensions in the United States, they could not grant the rights to one of their licensees to roll them out elsewhere.  

“I was crushed,” Hawasli says. “I remember the feeling, vividly, when I received the news. I poured all my energy and passion into this larger vision and was ready to execute as soon as they gave me their blessing. At the time, I felt my vision was years ahead of where the publishing industry wanted to be.

“From that point, it sunk in that I didn’t own the brand and I wasn’t in control. I knew I wasn’t going to stay in the publication game forever. I appreciated everything Rolling Stone did for me, but I could see the writing on the wall that there wasn’t a larger challenge for me anymore.”

Hawasli said goodbye to Dubai with his last AAX experience. During a weeklong effort in April 2014, Hawasli’s long-term vision to fuse all aspects of popular culture — including food, art and music — came together in one place to create a cultural community around the Rolling Stone brand. Hawasli flew Guns + Butter — a popular pop-up dining experience at the time — from Detroit to Dubai, along with visual artists Jordan Nickel (known as POSE) from Chicago and Jason Williams (known as Revok) from L.A. He also booked Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila to perform.

“Nobody but me knew this was it,” Hawasli says. “It was an amazing experience and the feedback was validating. I knew this was the direction I wanted to take the brand, but the decision was already made.”

The beat goes on …

Hawasli decided he had done all he wanted to do in Dubai. He had an opportunity to sell the larger media company he had created, of which Rolling Stone Middle East was the flagship. He moved back to Detroit to open a tech consulting business and real estate company. He also wanted to settle down and start a family.

“I have an amazing, supportive wife who understands how I’m built. She’s my rock and soundboard,” Hawasli says. “I also have a 3-year-old daughter at home who has taken me by storm and another little girl on the way. They’re all that matter. Everything else is just fluff.”

But the beat hasn’t stopped.

In 2017, Hawasli created Fanic Music, a web-based platform to connect musicians with fans and talent buyers. A few months after launch, Hawasli saw a shift in Fanic’s usage toward finding local openers for events with confirmed headliners. Being an adept businessperson, he saw the flaw and decided to pivot and focus primarily on what the industry was lacking: a system built to connect local musicians with local concert organizers looking for support for their local events. Opnr was born.

For musicians and band managers, Opnr offers an electronic press kit generator, allowing musicians to present themselves professionally when submitting for an opportunity. A search-and-submit function navigates musicians to current opening set and other performance opportunities based on location and genre.

two guys standing
Dan McGowan (right), managing partner of Crofoot Presents, has been an early supporter of Hawasli's Opnr app that connects promoters with musicians.

On the concert organizer side, Opnr streamlines the process by allowing users to create an opportunity within the platform and then filter their search based on specific criteria such as genre or location. “They can create an opportunity and then sit back and wait for the right submissions to come in,” Hawasli says.

Opnr continues to gain traction and build momentum. After only a few months of deployment, the platform has signed up nearly 1,000 musicians and organizers, listed more than 40 active or confirmed opportunities, and connected 16 musicians with performances. “We’ve also forged long-term partnerships with brand ambassadors, festival organizers and independent concert promoters,” Hawasli says. “We’re entering into an exciting chapter as we start conversations with potential investors.”

One of his biggest supporters of the concept is Dan McGowan, managing partner of Crofoot Presents, based in Pontiac, Michigan. A mutual friend connected the two. McGowan recalls the first time he and Hawasli met nearly three years ago backstage during a show at the Masonic Temple. McGowan remembers being immediately impressed. After a three-hour conversation, McGowan sensed Hawasli’s musical passion and business acumen. Since then, McGowan and his team constantly work with Hawasli on ways to perfect Opnr.

“His persistence is incredible,” McGowan says. “He’ll come at us with something and our team will give feedback on what may not work. For us, we feel like we’re ripping his heart out. Then two weeks later, he is back at us with revisions and a new approach. And he’s still smiling. Opnr is great, but the thing I also believe in is Waref. He will continue to push and drive on. That’s a unique trait. I feel Opnr is going to work because it’s good. But it’s also going to work because it’s him.”

three men standing
Helping Hawasli further Opnr’s direction has been the TechTown Business Incubator Center. Once a week, he works directly with Francis Glorie (left), TechTown Detroit entrepreneur-in-residence, and Paul Riser Jr. (right), managing director of tech-based entrepreneurship.

Also helping Hawasli further Opnr’s direction has been the TechTown Business Incubator Center, where he’s receiving up to 39 months of customized support as he grows his company. Once a week, Hawasli works directly with Francis Glorie, TechTown Detroit entrepreneur-in-residence, and Paul Riser Jr., managing director of tech-based entrepreneurship. Bonnie Fahoome, director of business programs at Design Core Detroit, connected the pair with Hawasli.

The TechTown duo provide guidance on Opnr business development, partnering and funding strategies, as well as the creation of an investor pitch. This also involves connecting Hawasli with the right resources based on his company’s needs and development stage.   

“He’s been absorbing the message extremely well and has redesigned his business and product into a much cleaner and leaner platform,” Glorie says. “Our relationship has flourished. We are able to leverage, through our frequent meetings and discussions, his enormous talent and provide sound guidance regarding the multiple facets of the business.”

This fall, Opnr received another boost. Michigan House, a pop-up activation space that brings the creativity and vitality of the Great Lakes state to the national stage, is collaborating with Opnr to help bring Michigan’s “experiential embassy” to South by Southwest (SXSW), the annual media, music, film and tech festival in Austin, Texas.

“This year we’re teaming with Opnr to open up our submissions process for musicians interested in being a part of the Michigan House Music Showcase at SXSW,” says Ted Velie, co-founder of Michigan House. “We’re really excited to be able to support a Michigan-based startup in the music industry, and are thrilled at how much Opnr is going to allow us to streamline our process.”

For Hawasli, it’s the culmination of what he set out to do in that college dorm room.

“Opnr is my bookend in this industry,” Hawasli says. “I started out helping the independent music community. And 17 years later, I’m still doing it.”

This story originally appeared in the fall 2018 Wayne State alumni magazine.

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