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“We will mark the anniversary massively”: the Exit team talk about their 20-year history and remaining independent amid a growing number of corporately owned events
By Anna Grace on 06 Nov 2019
Exit Festival, a live music event spawned from the desire for peace and freedom in the Balkans, is turning twenty years old this year, with a brand new set of social aims appearing at the top of its agenda.
Founded by Dusan Kovačević, Ivan Milivojev, Bojan Boskovic and Milos Ignjatovic in 2000, the first edition of Exit Festival took place in University Park in the Serbian city of Novi Sad, with the objective of connecting like-minded Balkan people and encouraging political engagement among the youth.
“Exit was the first mass gathering of young people from former Yugoslavian countries after the Balkans War [which took place from 1991-1999],” Sagor Mešković, the festival’s chief communications officer, explains to IQ. “It started off as a youth activism movement for peace in Serbia and the Balkans.”
“After ten years of war and isolation in the region, the first edition of the festival was characterised by a feeling that normal life was back again,” adds Exit co-founder Kovačević. “Emotions were so high, that most of the artists said that they played the best concert of their tour , or even their whole career, at the event.”
Twenty years on, Exit Festival has just enjoyed its biggest year yet, welcoming 200,000 fans to its permanent site at Novi Sad’s Petrovaradin Fortress for four days of performances from the likes of the Cure, Carl Cox, Amelie Lens, the Chainsmokers and Greta van Fleet.
“After ten years of war and isolation in the region, the first edition of the festival was characterised by a feeling that normal life was back again”
Adding to its flagship event, the Exit team have now developed an extended festival network, providing “the biggest cultural bridge between the countries of the former Yugoslavia” in the form of No Sleep Festival in Serbia, Sea Star in Croatia, Revolution Festival in Romania and Sea Dance Festival in Montenegro.
This unique history and ethos is the driving force behind the desire for Exit to remain independent.
“Exit didn’t start for profit,” states Kovačević. “I respect the investment funds that are taking over festivals – they are still doing great shows and people are having fun – but we have decided to stay independent because we know the festival world needs something like this.”
With so much history behind them, the twentieth anniversary of Exit Festival is “important on so many levels, not just for us, but for the whole region,” says Kovačević.
Exit 2.0, as the anniversary event is dubbed, will look to the future as well as celebrating of the past, a fact reflected in the very programming of the festival. “We are going to bring back some of the acts that marked our history and mix them together with those who are making an impact in this day and age,” states Kovačević.
With over 20 stages and even more genres of music, Exit’s line-ups are broad and diverse, frequently seeing pop stars and leading electronic acts headlining alongside rock, and even metal, bands. A dedicated Latin stage has been present at Exit since day one, which now seems “almost prophetic”, given the global Latin music rise we see today.
“I respect the investment funds that are taking over festivals, but we have decided to stay independent because we know the festival world needs something like this”
Although line-ups are always eclectic, the billing never tends towards the generic due to the team’s habit of booking based on “gut feeling”, in addition to using data, metrics and ticket sales figures. “The irrational part of us is the one that makes a good line-up,” states Mešković. On a more personal level, the team also strive to work with the artists “who have a similar ethos to ours.”
For Exit, it is vital to “be one with the audience”, making sure every decision is guided by the wants and needs of the fan. To this end, the festival aims to keep tickets affordable, especially for the local audience. “We never want to lose our local fans,” says Kovačević, “because if we did, we would lose our soul.”
In addition to its core audience of locals, Exit’s fan base has become more and more international over the years. Fans travel to Serbia from elsewhere in Europe, as well as from Asia, America and Australia to attend the event.
“We are bringing a lot of tourism into the country,” says the Exit co-founder, explaining that the boost the festival has given to the country’s international reputation is often compared to that made by Serbian tennis champion Novak Djokovic.
Together with the tennis player, Exit Festival has now set up a foundation to help build nursery schools in Serbia, one example of the festival’s continuation of its social activist roots.
“We know that through a good party and the love of music, you really can engage people in a meaningful way and make a difference”
Another example is Life Stream, the environmental campaign launched by Exit at Amsterdam Dance Event (ADE) in October. “The Life Stream project aims to put the festival industry at the forefront of the fight for life on the planet,” explains Kovačević.
The idea is to inject imagery, text and data relating to environmental issues into live streams from music festivals, to harness the “visibility and influence” they have for the good of the planet.
“We don’t want to show despair only,” says Mešković, “we also want to show there is some hope and to mobilise people to take action – because there is still time.”
The upcoming edition of Exit will serve as a major platform for the project, with both Kovačević and Mešković hoping other festivals will follow suit.
“We know that through a good party and the love of music, you really can engage people in a meaningful way and make a difference.”
Exit 2.0 takes place from 9 to 12 July 2020 in Novi Sad, Serbia.
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