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Waref Hawasli, the chief executive of HGW Media, says discovering another Justin Bieber is not a farfetched idea. Jeff Topping / The National
Waref Hawasli, the chief executive of HGW Media, says discovering another Justin Bieber is not a farfetched idea. Jeff Topping / The National

Calling the shots in a battle of the bands

The Life: The winner of a competition being launched by Rolling Stone Middle East magazine will be considered for a record deal by Sony Music. 

Concerts by the likes of Madonna and Coldplay mean big business in the UAE but a lack of suitable venues means the door is closed to smaller acts.

That is the view of Waref Hawasli, the chief executive of HGW Media, which publishes Rolling Stone Middle East.

The magazine is set to launch a competition - Street to Stage - on Thursday to seek out the region's hottest new bands and artists. Only 15 acts will make the first shortlist, with the eventual winner to be considered for a recording contract with Sony Music. Here, Mr Hawasli explains the challenges faced by young musicians in the Middle East.

Is there a thriving music industry in the UAE?

There's a thriving events scene here, that's for sure. The difference is - if you go to London, New York or LA - there's a huge pulse of young, aspiring musicians trying to make it. In the UAE and Middle East, there is, too, but there's nowhere to perform. There's not many live venues.

Acts such as Madonna and Coldplay have played in the UAE. Isn't that just what people want?

That is what people want. They're selling out the arenas ... There's a huge demand. When you take 180 nationalities and drop them into one city, you obviously have to go towards the music that everybody recognises. It's the popular culture music. And that's what is going to sell tickets.

So why encourage smaller bands?

You start by being unheard and unknown, and then you become known and you've got a following, and then you become a major act. That's just the flow of the music industry: you don't just wake up and become famous. What we're starting is the first step towards that.

How hard is it for a young band in the Middle East to be heard by a top record company executive?

Extremely hard. Nowadays, you have to sell like a million records before you can even get signed. Or you have to have a million views on YouTube. Things have definitely evolved in the music industry.

The first stage of the competition is online. How important is the internet for new bands?

There's a lot of new bands. It's just they don't rely on the record companies initially any more. They've got YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. I mean, look what happened to Justin Bieber: He was a YouTube sensation. He put up a video online... and look at him now. It's the beauty of the digital era: you don't necessarily have to stand outside a radio station any more, trying to get your demo on air. You now can use the internet to your advantage as a musician.

Don't tell me you're going to unearth 15 more Biebers ...

[Laughs]. If we find a Justin Bieber, I'll make sure that I sign him. But who knows? I don't think there's a Justin Bieber here, but there definitely could be.

bflanagan@thenational.ae

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