Exit Festival boss reflects on landmark year
Exit festival founder and CEO Dušan Kovačević has looked back on another landmark year for the event and opened up on his plans for the future in a new interview with IQ.
Last year’s 20th anniversary Exit was billed as the first major festival in Europe to take place since the pandemic. And for its 2022 edition, held from 7-11 July, the Serbian institution again made history by welcoming its first homegrown headliner – Belgrade-born singer-songwriter Konstrakta.
“This was a significant moment,” Kovačević tells IQ. “Konstrakta is an absolute phenomenon, using an artistic approach to connect with new generations on various trending lists, overtaking trappers and artists in other popular genres. This makes her highly unique, and we wanted to honour that.
“We are proud not only because she is a local performer but also because she is a female artist. She caused complete enthusiasm and hysteria in the region, Europe, and beyond.”
“Last year was incredibly significant for the festival’s history because we showed that we would not live in a world without public gatherings”
Fans from more than 100 countries attended the 17th century Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad to witness headliners including Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and Calvin Harris, alongside acts such as Iggy Azalea, Afrojack, Sepultura, Jax Jones, Disciples and Joel Corry.
“The event went great; as expected, the fortress was packed every night with around 50,000 people daily,” says Kovačević.
“Last year was incredibly significant for the festival’s history because we showed that we would not live in a world without public gatherings. We organised a safe event and became the first major festival to take place since the beginning of the pandemic.
“I thought that it would take a long time to surpass that incredible catharsis and explosion of positive energy when tens of thousands of us finally got together again after two years. However, this year something magical happened, and the festival’s energy surpassed even that of the previous year.”
“This year has brought a series of economic challenges, which is another blow we’ve had to suffer after everything we’ve been through in recent years”
Kovačević singles out the closing night’s festivities in the Dance Arena, which was extended for an hour beyond its allotted time, as “pure magic”.
“People didn’t want to leave when the [last act] left the stage, as the energy was still at a maximum,” he says. “I asked Human Rias, who was with us on stage and also opened the Dance Arena [on the first night], to keep the party going. So the closing of the Dance Arena lasted an hour longer this year.”
While highlighting the biggest hurdles as “increasing costs and all the uncertainties that accompany the current global crisis”, Kovačević sounds an upbeat note on the recovery of the European festival market in general.
“Due to the current crisis in Ukraine and general inflation, this year has brought a series of economic challenges, which is another blow we’ve had to suffer after everything we’ve been through in recent years,” he reflects. “But the pandemic also had its positive side, showing that going to festivals is not only a form of entertainment but also a way of life without which new generations cannot imagine growing up.
“Young people build their identities through festivals and gatherings. Considering the influence of social media, which should be connecting us, but is doing the opposite, festivals truly connect us and have become one of the most important forms of live experiences and socialisation.”
“We will continue to pay special attention to mental health projects”
He continues: “I found inspiration in this year’s mental health messages displayed all over the Petrovaradin fortress and on the screens at the biggest stages. I want our organisation to give this topic even more room next year. We have proven once again that when we are together and united, we can do anything, and nothing can stop our positive intentions.”
Indeed, Kovačević’s thoughts have already raced ahead to 2023, when Exit is slated to return from 6-9 July.
“As every year, we are planning numerous improvements for next year, so we can definitely expect more novelties in areas such as the production level of the Exit Festival, which has been raised to a new level this year with the highest-quality sound systems and over 40 stages and zones,” he says.
“The mental health initiative has been a big part of the festival for years and I can say that we will continue to pay special attention to mental health projects. The promotion of World and Consciousness Music through all musical genres will be a big part of our future and many other things which I am not able to speak of yet.”
Founded as a student movement in the fight for democracy and freedom in Serbia and the region, Exit was first held in 2000 on several stages set up in the University Park in Novi Sad. Moving to the Petrovaradin Fortress the following year, it has gone on to host the likes of Massive Attack, Cypress Hill, The White Stripes, Carl Cox, Wu-Tang Clan, Sex Pistols, Arctic Monkeys, Placebo, Beastie Boys, Snoop Dogg, Arcade Fire, M. I. A, Jamiroquai, Guns N’ Roses, Duran Duran, Faithless, Motörhead, Jason Derulo, David Guetta, Migos and The Cure.
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Exit festival pulls off major international event
Serbia’s Exit Festival took place last weekend (8–11 July), attracting 42,000 festivalgoers from more than 70 countries on the opening day alone.
The 20th-anniversary edition has been slated as ‘the first major festival in Europe to take place this summer after the pandemic,’ having hosted both a multi-national crowd (50% of the four-day ticket holders came from abroad) and an international line-up.
David Guetta, Sabaton, Charlotte de Witte, Nina Kraviz, Paul Kalkbrenner and Solomun were among the international headliners that performed in the 17th-century fortress in Novi Sad – while others were forced to cancel at the last minute, “mainly due to pandemic-related reasons”.
According to the organisers, besides the programming, the biggest challenge of putting on the event was the “ever-changing regulations due to Covid-19” but the festival worked with the Serbian authorities and health organisations to create a protocol that was “legal and realistic” for the fans.
Visitors were allowed to enter the event either with proof of immunity (vaccination or antigens from a past infection), or a negative test (either before entering the country or at the test zone set up by the festival).
“Festivals are generally made to promote values worth living for and we are determined to prove that they can be organised safely”
The organisers say that early statistics have shown less than a dozen positive cases from approximately 14,000 tests done at the festival’s pre-entry test zone.
“I knew this year’s event was more than just a festival, it was a movement of people, ready to do whatever it takes to keep human connections at the forefront of our existence,” says Dusan Kovacevic, Exit founder and CEO.
“Festivals are generally made to promote values worth living for and we are determined to prove that festivals can be organised safely even during a pandemic. That’s why we have worked tirelessly to create a best practice model on how to do it. Besides our own event, we also hope that Exit will be an encouragement to all our international festival colleagues, the ‘Festival Family’ that it is possible for all of us.
“A festival is only as strong as its fanbase and during the four days we had a gathering of probably the most passionate festival fans in Europe and beyond! The ones that didn’t mind coming despite all uncertainties, cancellations and travel, PCR tests and other obstacles. They felt the same superstrong need we had all this time – a need for us to be together no matter what, united as one by power of music and life,” he concluded.
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Dušan Kovačević: “Exit 2021 will go down in history”
Ahead of the 20th anniversary edition of Exit, festival founder and CEO Dušan Kovačević talks to IQ about social activism, expanding the Exit brand and plans for the 8-11 July gathering.
IQ: How big is your full-time team, and how big is the team during a festival?
DK: Bearing in mind that we are one of the fastest-growing independent festival groups globally, with seven festivals in six countries and several new ones planned, we have about 100 people employed full-time throughout the year. During the Exit festival, the team grows to over 5,000 people, while with other festivals, that number grows to over 10,000 people involved throughout the year.
You’ve won Best Major European Festival at The European Festival Awards twice – 2013, 2017. What does it mean to you?
It means a lot, both on a personal and on an organisational level. The award in 2013 came after I took over the management of the festival again after a few years break. After the world economic crisis in 2008, the festival fell into a period of stagnation and even decline. It took a lot of energy to raise the hype again, and I can say that we did a fantastic job, which was confirmed by this award. In 2017, another award came our way. That year was extraordinary because as one of the few modern big festivals that inherits the tradition of social activism from the first major festivals, we marked the 50th anniversary of the famous Summer of Love of 1967.
Exit has been among the top ten European festivals practically every year since the launch of the European Festival Awards
This celebration began with our Sea Star festival in Croatia, which we also launched that year. It continued with the main event in Novi Sad and ended at the Sea Dance Festival in Montenegro. The first Summer of Love in 1967 was tied to the Peace on Earth movement and stopping the Vietnam War, and we dedicated our Summer of Love 2017 to the slogan Peace with Earth, pointing out the need to urgently protect the planet from the destruction of life on it.
We were honoured that the opening ceremony of Exit festival that year was attended by representatives of the Standing Rock Indian tribe. These Native Americans fought with oil companies and the federal government to stop constructing oil pipelines through their holy land and rivers. Nik Vujicic, one of the most famous motivational speakers in the world, was also present at the opening that year, sending a message to everyone that giving up is not an option! The award in 2017 came as a confirmation of the constant success of Exit Festival and the other festivals in our family, especially considering that Exit has been among the top ten European festivals practically every year since the launch of the European Festival Awards.
“[The Dance Arena] is the main reason we have visitors from over 100 countries from all over the planet”
Exit’s Dance Arena is almost as big as the main arena (25,000 vs 35,000). How important is it and why do you mix musical styles so much?
We are one of the first festivals to decide to have two main stages and have alternative electronic music on the big stage. The Dance Arena soon became known among DJs and music magazines as one of the best, if not the best electronic dance floor in the world. Because of this status among performers and the audience, it is our flagship stage and the main reason we have visitors from over 100 countries from all over the planet.
The Dance Arena, along with the main stage and over 35 other stages and zones throughout the Fortress, provides a unique and unforgettable festival experience, combining a large number of genres, a fact we are particularly proud of. We are committed to being a multi-genre festival, where you can hear the world’s best alternative and mainstream electronic music, but also the world’s best rock, hip-hop, pop, as well as reggae, drum ‘n’ bass and other music genres.
If you could sum up the top three things you’ve learned over the last 20 years of Exit, what are they?
First: never give up. I often say that doing a major festival in a country where wages and ticket prices are ten times lower than in developed western countries is akin to farming in the Sahara. But despite the many crises and temptations that the festival and I personally went through, I learned that the night really is always darkest before dawn and that one must persevere in awaiting daybreak. I have the same mindset regarding the pandemic, and I believe that the Exit is closer than most expect.
The second thing I’ve learned is that people are most important, both people within the team to make the festival happen and the people in the audience, the fans. It is vital to be dedicated to people; then, you can expect great things from them. I would say that this is one reason why Exit is known for having one of the best atmospheres in the world. The third thing I’ve learned is that nothing is impossible. The key to life is believing in yourself and your dreams, and if that faith is strong enough, miracles can happen every day.
“In a year in which the world’s music industry was brought to its knees, we are proud to have realised Life Stream”
What’s the plan for the big 20th birthday party?
We are planning a Big Bang at the Fortress, from the 8th to the 11th of July. Many performers have already been confirmed, including David Guetta, DJ Snake, Sheck Wes, Nina Kraviz, Erik Prydz in a special b2b set with Four Tet, Paul Kalkbrenner, Solomon, Tyga, Boris Brejcha, Honey Dijon, Metronomy, Paul van Dyk, Sepultura and many others. And that’s not all; new surprises will be announced soon.
What celebrations have you rolled over from last year?
In a year in which the world’s music industry was brought to its knees, we are proud to have realised Life Stream, in co-operation with the United Nations World Food Program, the largest humanitarian organisation in the world and the current Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was a full-blooded live festival experience with a limited live audience and the world’s top electronic music performers. The video of the show was later viewed almost eight million times. With this, we started the 20th-anniversary celebrations, the finale of which will take place from the 8th to the 11th of July 2021 at our Fortress.
“We expect such a strong positive charge that this year’s Exit will go down in history as one of the most special”
What’s the plan for 2021 in terms of capacity and mitigation measures in place regarding Covid? How will you be ensuring that it’s safe?
In the few months of 2021, Serbia, along with the UK, has established itself as the European leader in immunisation numbers, which is why we expect an accelerated opening plan similar to the British model. We believe that, before the end of spring, we will have achieved herd immunity, with a large number of those who have either been vaccinated or survived Covid-19.
Therefore, we expect the government to lift all restrictions by the beginning of summer, similar to what is planned in the UK. In the worst-case scenario, we expect entry to the festival to be possible for all who have been vaccinated, while others will be able to take quick tests at the entrance.
What can we expect that’s special or different from Exit this year?
The first Exit took place after a decade of war and poverty in Serbia and the Balkans. After a decade of isolation, the desire for normal life led people to an explosion of positive energy that was so strong that it created a legend of Exit that is still retold to this day. Due to the pandemic and the fact that people have been living in abnormal conditions for more than a year, it seems as if history is repeating itself, so this year we expect such a strong positive charge that this year’s Exit will go down in history as one of the most special.
“The appetite of the young audience in Serbia and the whole world is huge”
Have you surveyed your audience as to how confident they are and what the appetite is to return?
The appetite of the young audience in Serbia and the whole world is huge. As we have seen, in the UK, once the opening plan was announced, virtually all festivals were sold out in record time.
Aside from physically being able to go ahead, what’s the biggest challenge that festivals face right now?
Of course, it is a considerable challenge. For almost a year, our industry has been most endangered, revenues have been reduced by nearly 100%, and it has been a massive challenge, the biggest in history. We are proud to have managed to keep most of our team together, and we expect that with the completion of the immunisation process and return to normal life, we will soon be in full swing again.
“I think we all finally realised that if any part of the music ecosystem is disrupted, everyone is threatened”
How do you see the festival business changing over the next few years?
I think it will take several years for the whole industry to recover from such a strong impact. It will require unity of all participants on the scene, from artists and their agencies to the promoters of concerts and festivals. We will have to be more united than ever, and I see a significant change in the fact that the pandemic has awakened solidarity and united the world’s music industry in an incredible way.
The practice used to be that performer agencies and event organisers were often on opposite sides. However, I was pleasantly surprised at how, after the outbreak of the pandemic, the whole industry became united, and I think we all finally realised that if any part of the music ecosystem is disrupted, everyone is threatened.
Exit was born from political struggle – how political is the organisation these days? What’s its social responsibility?
The Exit Foundation is as important to us as the music festival, and it implements dozens of important projects each year. Using the power of the Exit brand, the Exit Foundation has positioned itself over the years as a leader in mobilising both public opinion and the decision-makers in the areas of youth support, environmental protection, peace promotion, creative industries, destination branding and humanitarian work. Each year, we implement dozens of projects to contribute to improvements in these areas.
Last year, apart from the aforementioned Life Stream, we used our Green Revolution platform to influence the government of Serbia to adopt our initiative and increase the country’s afforestation from the current 28% to 40% of its territory. The foundation has become an indelible part of the festival, and over the years, its social role has been integrated with our musical work, making a single unit.
“We are excited by the possibility of creating new concepts and brands adapted to their [other] countries”
How do you see the festival developing over the next 20 years?
The next 20 years will determine whether our planet will become uninhabitable for humans and most plants and animals. I see Exit at the forefront of that fight, along with all like-minded individuals and organisations, because only united we can make real change.
How do you plan to keep growing the Exit brand?
On the one hand, providing the best festival and entertainment experience in the unique, magical location of one of the largest fortresses in Europe. On the other hand, through strong social activism, which together with other organisations should lead to a new evolution, but this time an evolution of consciousness of enough people to really collectively reach peace on earth and peace with earth.
We also received many invitations to spread all over the world, which we find very exciting. There’s only one Exit Festival, and the Exit brand is reserved only for our Fortress in Novi Sad. Still, we are excited by the possibility of creating new concepts and brands adapted to their host countries, but at the same time associated with the Exit brand.
In addition to Exit, we currently have the Sea Dance Festival in Montenegro, Sea Star in Croatia, Revolution in Romania, Echowaves in Georgia and F84 in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There’s also the youngest member of our festival family, No Sleep in Belgrade, which is the current holder of the EFA award for the Best New European Festival.
What are you most looking forward to this year?
This year, I am most looking forward to another embrace – an embrace between the audience and the artists and an embrace between all of us.
Festivals can still make a difference
The Covid pandemic has been the harshest on the events and festival industry, keeping in mind that mass gatherings were the first to be shut down and will be the last to reopen.
The worst thing is that nobody knows when the revival of the festivals might happen. Uncertainty is at its highest point. However, despite unprecedented challenges, there is still a lot that festivals can do.
Most festivals have turned to the digital world in order to remain present in the lives of their fans. Some offered videos of their past editions, some built complex pay-per-view virtual worlds with exclusive superstar shows.
At Exit we decided to take a somewhat unique approach. Exit started as a youth movement for peace and freedom in Serbia and the Balkans 20 years ago.
Since then, social activism remains as important as the music itself through the work of Exit Foundation, which runs the festival, among other projects.
The Foundation’s work varies from humanitarian initiatives, such as helping to build a hospital wing for children with cancer, and participating in a global campaign to stop human trafficking, to projects in youth development, peace promotion and environmental protection.
We were also responsible for bringing the titles of European Culture Capital and European Youth Capital to our home city of Novi Sad.
Life Stream is an open-source platform that can run by every event in the world
Dedication to social activism is the reason we decided to mark Exit’s 20th anniversary with one of our biggest environmental projects to date, Life Stream, in which regular festival streams combine with video and messaging to alert the audience to the seriousness of the environmental crisis: if humanity doesn’t change course, Planet Earth could become inhabitable in just a few decades!
We launched a pilot edition of this project during ADE 2019 with Artbat performing from The Crane in Amsterdam.
The next level involves partnership with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), to illustrate the crisis that is happening as we speak.
The pandemic and lockdown measures, together with climate change, are pushing a record number of people to the edge of extreme hunger.
It’s estimated that 270 million people will be in danger before the end of 2020 – an 80% increase from 2019.
Life Stream 2020 is a four-day festival, 3–6 September, taking place at Petrovaradin Fortress, where Exit Festival takes place.
From our legendary Dance Arena, we brought together international stars alongside our most famous regional acts. Some performances were live from the Fortress and some will be exclusive online sets, which we’ll present as if they’re live onstage.
The task of our generation is to build not a new normal, but a new Earth
We built a big production for this, one of the few actual stages that will be built this year. Viewers joined us online via stream, free of charge, and we had a small live audience, adhering to government guidelines and current health and safety measures.
During the stream there was be a call to action for people to donate directly to the UN’s WFP page.
Life Stream is an open-source platform that can run by every event in the world that wants to dedicate media space to support social issues.
Helping others is the strongest motivation to realise such a project, even in such difficult times. The pandemic is the fourth emergency state we at EXIT have experienced in our lives.
Therefore, we can offer a few words of consolation: that no matter how bad the situation looks at the moment, the clouds will disappear and the sun will shine again.
It is up to us in the festival world to be at the forefront of not allowing the ‘new normal’ to be a world with no contact, but for the pandemic to bring us to a more responsible way of thinking about the world around us.
The task of our generation is to build not a new normal, but a ‘new Earth,’ where humanity will be in harmony with the life around us. If we don’t succeed, we might be the last generation to try.
Dušan Kovačević is founder and CEO of Exit Festival in Serbia.
Exit 2.0: back to the future of the Balkans’ biggest festival
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.