EXIT Festival chief salutes spirit of independence
EXIT boss Dušan Kovačević has shared the pros and cons of remaining independent in 2023 – and reflected on the festival’s new spin-off event in Montenegro.
Serbia’s best known festival, the 50,000-cap spectacular pulled in 200,000 punters to the Petrovaradin Fortress in Serbia over four days in July to see acts such as The Prodigy, Wu-Tang Clan, Skrillex, Eric Prydz, Alesso, Chase & Status, Dimitri Vegas & Like Mike and Nina Kraviz. Its next edition is scheduled for 11-14 July 2024.
EXIT starred in IQ‘s recent feature on ten of Europe’s brightest independent festivals, and Kovačević speaks of the struggles of continuing to go it alone.
“The biggest challenge of remaining independent in 2023 is the increasing costs in the festival industry,” he tells IQ. “Corporate-backed festivals often have substantial financial resources, more marketing power, and established connections that allow them to gain needed funding more easily in the moments of crisis.
“We cannot forget the pandemic’s impact on the industry, and a great shift it made when it comes to consumer expectations. We are often required to adapt rapidly to high demands whilst facing financial challenges that we inherited from the pandemic period.”
“Independence allows us to think and grow beyond the financial reports”
Kovačević adds that rising costs such as artist fees, security measures, and logistical expenses, are a further strain on resources.
“Without the backing of major sponsors or investors, it can be challenging to maintain a sustainable business model and deliver a high-quality experience while keeping ticket prices fair,” he adds.
Nevertheless, Kovačević suggests the hard work is well worth to enable organisers to stay true to spirit of the event.
“Independence allows us to think and grow beyond the financial reports. Excel sheets are not the ultimate God of the festival, creativity and artistic expression is,” he says. “This way we get to cultivate the spirit of the festival that made it so magical in the first place. Freedom is undoubtedly the biggest benefit. We take a lot of pride in retaining artistic freedom.
“One of the most important things to us is growing and nurturing the soul of the festival. Even though we face a lot of competition in the region and the world, remaining independent allows us the freedom to express our vision, provide unforgettable experiences, be a part of the positive change in our community, and society as a whole without having to worry about short-term financial influxes that would limit us significantly.”
EXIT events in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, UAE, Netherlands, Turkey, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Slovenia were visited by around half a million people in 2022, making it the largest number in the festival’s history.
“Ada Divine Awakening holds a unique place within our rich festival and event portfolio, as it authentically transforms and uplifts people’s lives”
While it was announced in June that EXIT’s Sea Dance spin-off would be leaving Montenegro, the team debuted the Ada Divine Awakening in the country last month on the island of Ada Bojana. Billed as offering “a powerful festival experience that combines life-force awakening retreat, educational workshops, incredible music & art, mindfulness and much more”, artists included Mose, Murray Kyle, Joseph Pepe Danza, Mushina and Tebra.
With a dedicated emphasis on ecology and environmental conservation, Ada Divine Awakening forged a partnership with the “Every Can Counts” project. In addition, organisers, attendees and volunteers came together to collect nearly two tons of waste from almost a kilometre of untamed beach in collaboration with the City of Ulcinj, Ulcinj Riviera, and DOO Komunalne djelatnosti – Ulcinj, along with the Remedies 20t Challenge initiative.
The intimate 500-cap gathering attracted attendees from more than 40 countries and will return from 13-18 September next year. Kovačević reveals plans are already afoot to expand the concept overseas.
“Ada Divine Awakening holds a unique place within our rich festival and event portfolio, as it authentically transforms and uplifts people’s lives,” says Kovačević. “It quickly grew into one of the leading consciousness and intimacy festivals in the world and we will be partnering with like-minded promoters to cast ADA magic through numerous spin-offs worldwide.”
Meanwhile, EXIT’s talent and management agency Echosystem, which was established earlier this year, recently announced that one of its clients, 17-year-old electronic music artist LANNA, has signed to CAA and will be represented by agent Maria May.
“I am very excited to take over supporting LANNA’s career,” says May. “As a strong proponent of supporting young female artists, I believe LANNA has the potential to reach the stars very fast.”
The full list of ten of the best indie gatherings appears in Issue 122 of IQ Magazine.
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EXIT’s Sea Dance festival forced to leave Montenegro
Sea Dance will leave Montenegro after the country’s ministry for tourism said it intends to withdraw the funds the festival has been receiving since its inception.
Launched in 2014 by the team behind Serbia’s flagship Exit festival, Sea Dance (cap. 40,000) has so far brought over €60 million to the Montenegrin tourism economy.
Now, the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism says there is no legal way of providing financial assistance Sea Dance Festival due to an EU law that limits state aid.
Subsequently, the Agency for Protection of Competition has ordered the ministry, among other parties, to suspend all cooperation with Sea Dance festival, sealing the fate of the August edition.
“We are forced to react to the Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism’s announcement that there is no legal way of providing financial assistance to Sea Dance Festival and point out that this is not true,” reads a statement from EXIT.
“The de minimis limitations that the Ministry mentions in the announcement apply to state aid. However, we once again unequivocally assert that the state’s support for Sea Dance Festival is not aid, but a partnership aimed at the realization of a music festival, with the objective of boosting the local tourism industry and furthering the promotion of the destination.”
EXIT, which last year organised 26 events in 10 countries throughout Europe and the world, has such commercial partnerships with state institutions in numerous countries worldwide, including several EU countries.
“We once again unequivocally assert that the state’s support is not aid, but a partnership aimed at the realization of a festival”
Among these are the City of Umag and the Croatian Tourist Board, which provide substantial support for the Sea Star (cap. 40,000) festival in Croatia, held in Umag last weekend.
The statement from EXIT continues: “Bearing in mind, over the previous nine years, no government agency has made even the slightest comment of this nature and that the procedure was initiated only now, before the upcoming elections — the whole situation points to pre-election political manoeuvres, which the music festival does not want to be involved in or become collateral damage of.”
Organisers say they have already received offers to host this year’s edition in several countries, among them Croatia, Bulgaria, and Turkey.
Sea Dance brought some of the world’s biggest music stars to Montenegro, including The Prodigy, Jamiroquai, David Guetta, Skrillex, Underworld, Fatboy Slim, John Newman, Sean Paul, Robin Schulz, Boris Brejcha, Tale of Us, Sven Väth, Nina Kraviz, Amelie Lens, Maceo Plex, Richie Hawtin, Rudimental, Róisín Murphy, Hurts, Lost Frequencies, Nile Rodgers, Mahmut Orhan, as well as the biggest regional acts.
The government of Montenegro, in 2014, estimated that Sea Dance would bring more than €100 million to Montenegrin tourism by 2025 and that it would “significantly contribute to the improvement of business, not only in the tourism sector but in the overall economy of Montenegro.”
EXIT’s statement concluded: “If even after the festival’s €60 million contribution to Montenegrin tourism, the introduction of the world’s biggest music stars to Montenegro, and the inestimable value of promoting the destination, the government institutions still do not understand that supporting Sea Dance is not state aid but one of the best investments they could make — it is apparent that this festival is not welcome by Ministry of Economic Development and Tourism and that it should not take place in Montenegro this year.”
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EXIT optimistic for ’23 after record-breaking year
After a record breaking year with 26 events in 10 countries, EXIT is optimistically walking towards 2023!
After EXIT gave new life to the festival industry in 2021 by being the first major event to happen since the beginning of the pandemic, it was fairly optimistic to hope for a record-breaking year in 2022. However, the year turned out to be even bigger for the Serbian landmark festival.
With eight festivals, a virtual reality showcase at Expo Dubai, partnership with one of the largest metaverse conferences in Europe, 18 various music events, and sold-out NFT collections with world famous superstars, EXIT single handedly became one of the largest independently owned festival organisations in the world.
EXIT events in Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, UAE, Netherlands, Turkey, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Slovenia were visited by around half a million people, making it the largest number in the festival’s history. EXIT also grew its trophy cabinet by two international and regional accolades. Shortlists for three European Festival Awards, already won by Exit’s festivals four times in the past, also arrived to close off the year.
EXIT, Sea Dance, Sea Star, Ada Divine Awakening, two editions of No Sleep festival, WOMBA and Get Excited marked a true comeback of the event industry in Balkans with headliners such as Calvin Harris, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Iggy Azalea, Amelie Lens, ARTBAT, Boris Brejcha, Maceo Plex, Nina Kraviz, Honey Dijon, Monolink, Satori and Sepultura, just to name a few.
“Innovation in today’s world is the main parameter for success of any organisation”
Exit’s year was also marked by its entry into the Metaverse and the creation of one of the first NFT collections in the festival world, as well as NFT festival tickets. Well known for being creative and innovative, this venture was fortunate to say the least, as all collections were sold out, and EXIT together with NFT-Tix won Best Innovation at UK Festival Awards. Moreover, EXIT delivered a premium VR festival experience, first presented at EXPO 2020 Dubai, and later in the EXITVERSE zone on EXIT and Sea Dance festivals.
“Innovation in today’s world is the main parameter for success of any organisation. We are proud to continuously expand the boundaries of the festival experience and provide fans with not only top-class entertainment, but also the opportunity for education and personal growth of each individual,” says the founder and CEO of the festival, Dusan Kovacevic.
EXIT was born out of social activism and would not exist without its Foundation work which is as important as the festival itself. After a devastating effect the pandemic had on the world, EXIT Foundation’s imperative in 2022 was to support mental health both of the audience and young people in general, as well as its employees with two mental health specialists being employed by the organisation.
“In 2023, we will continue to prioritise improving the mental health of young people as one of the main challenges of today, and we are also planning the return of our environmental project Life Stream, which we launched in 2020 with the United Nations World Food Program, the largest humanitarian organisation in the world,” adds Kovacevic.
With a strong attitude, and an inventive spirit the festival’s organisation has, it is more than ready to walk into another promising year. Headliners such as The Prodigy, Skrillex, Viagra boys, Camelphat and Keinemusik are already announced for EXIT 2023 with many more to come.
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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.
Left no trace: No increase in infections after Exit 2021
Exit Festival 2021, which took place in Novi Sad, Serbia, from 8 to 11 July, did not lead to a significant increase in new cases of Covid-19 at either a local or national level, despite attracting more than 40,000 people a day, organisers have confirmed.
Exit – which monitored infections for two weeks after the festival as part of a safety protocol, Safe Events Serbia, under which it went ahead (which, among other things, limited entry to those who were vaccinated against Covid-19, had antibodies, or presented a negative test) – found that in the 14–15 days after the event, infections did not increase significantly in the Vojvodina region or Serbia as a whole.
There were just 12 new coronavirus cases in Novi Sad connected to Exit Festival after seven days, despite the estimated 20,000 foreigners from 70 countries who entered Serbia to attend the event, organisers tell IQ.
In fact, the vast majority of new cases in the city were connected to weddings, and not to Exit Festival, which was not a place of significant infection, according to Vladimir Petrovic, director of the Institute of Public Health of Vojvodina.
“In the period from 12 to 18 July, 12 cases were registered in Novi Sad that could be traced back to Exit Festival, ten among visitors, and two with family members of visitors,” Dr Petrovic told Euronews Serbia on 20 July. “All cases were accompanied by a mild clinical picture and were treated at home.”
The vast majority of new cases in the city were connected to weddings, and not to Exit Festival
“In the last week, a total of 84 cases have been registered in Novi Sad, and most of them, after epidemiological investigations, were found to have attended weddings organised across the country,” he added.
David Guetta, Sabaton, Charlotte de Witte, Nina Kraviz, Paul Kalkbrenner and Solomun were among the overseas artists who performed at Exit Festival, the biggest major international festival since the pandemic began.
Exit co-founder and CEO Dušan Kovačević comments: “Research from Exit proves that even during a pandemic, a means and a model can be found according to which even the largest events can take place completely safely. This research is our contribution to the struggle of the entire music industry for far better treatment in Europe and other countries than has been the case so far. We have proven that we have been treated unfairly in the past, and that there are no longer any arguments and justifications that can allow gatherings at sporting events, in cafes or shopping malls, and not at concerts and festivals.
“I call on our entire industry to, just like we have fought and won in Serbia, join forces and fight for the fair treatment of our industry on an international level.”
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.
Serbia’s Arsenal Fest welcomes 23,000 Covid-free fans
Arsenal Fest welcomed more than 23,000 people across three days for its 11th outing, held from 24 to 26 June with no social distancing in Serbia’s industrial heartland.
All attendees for the 2021 edition of Arsenal Fest, which typically has a daily capacity of 10,000, were either fully vaccinated or required to submit a negative Covid-19 test beforehand, with promoter Long Play organising free rapid testing for all attendees in the city of Kragujevac. In total, 5,000 people took advantage of the testing facilities, with only person turned away after testing positive.
Held in a disused munitions factory in Kragujevac, the former capital of Serbia, Arsenal Fest 2021 is probably the largest European festival held since the start of the pandemic, with nearly 8,000 people a day watching international and Balkan artists including Yngwie Malmsteen (pictured), Dub FX, Dubioza kolektiv, Riblja čorba, Bajaga i Instruktori, Partibrejkers and Hladno pivo. (Two international acts who were forced to cancel, Placebo and Gogol Bordello, will instead play Arsenal Fest 2022.)
Tickets were priced at 1,500 dinars (€13) per day or 3,000 din (€26) for a three-day pass, and fans were given the option to roll over their tickets for Placebo in 2022 if they preferred.
Festival CEO Zoran Vulović Vule explains that this year’s event had the slogan ‘Strong with Music’, reflecting the huge number of people who had come together to celebrate music’s unifying power after nearly 16 months of silence.
“Given that the global music industry is just opening after a year or so of the Covid blockade, and the arrival of foreign bands was still logistically difficult, this summer Arsenal was more focused on some of the most important and influential names of regional music, with traditional space for new musicians,” continues Vule.
Promoter Long Play organised free rapid testing for all attendees in the city of Kragujevac
“Legendary Serbian bands Partibrejkers, Bajaga i Instruktori and folk-punks Brkovi played on the Arsenal’s Main Stage, while June 25th belonged to Croatian punk rockers Hladno pivo, international Balkan-ska attraction Dubioza kolektiv and Australian musician Dub FX…
“The final evenings in the unique open space of the Knežev Arsenal, a former 19th century ammunition factory, belonged to Osvajači, celebrating 30 years of their debut album, Krv i led; Orthodox Celts; and world-renowned guitar hero Yngwie Malmsteen, for the first time in Serbia!”
Elsewhere, “one of greatest rock bands in the former Yugoslavia, Riblja čorba, returned with performances on 26 June in Kragujevac after an extremely difficult year during which they lost their member Miša Aleksić to Covid-19,” adds Vule.
Dates for Arsenal Fest 2022 will be announced soon.
Exit festival to offer vaccines to int’l visitors
Exit Festival plans to offer doses of the coronavirus vaccine to international guests who attend the event this summer.
The Serbian festival, which will be held in Novi Sad from 8–11 July, is set to go ahead as normal as the country charges towards a full reopening on 21 June, thanks to Serbia’s “successful mass vaccination programme and significantly decreased number of new Covid cases”.
Now, “as a way to aid countries that currently have vaccine shortages,” Exit has partnered with the ministry of health to organise “a few thousand” coronavirus vaccine doses for international artists, ticketholders and accredited press who attend the festival.
The festival told IQ that international guests will be able to apply to have their vaccine in Serbia. More information regarding the vaccination process for international visitors will be announced soon.
Attendees who can prove they are immune against Covid-19 or can produce a negative PCR or antigen test will also be able to attend the 20th-anniversary edition of Exit – which is slated to feature international acts including Robin Schultz, David Guetta and DJ Snake.
“Serbia has been one of the global leaders in mass vaccination for months,” says Serbian prime minister Ana Brnabić. “Thanks to that, we have an ever-improving epidemiological situation and the plan is to open the country for gatherings, concerts and festivals on 21 June.
“Exit festival happening this July will be one of the important symbols of Serbia’s victory over the pandemic”
“In this way, we show not only the care for the event industry that contributes so much to our tourism and economy, but we also fight for the mental health of young people. Also, we confirm the strategic commitment of the government of Serbia towards the development of creative industries. Exit festival, which our country is globally proud of, happening this July will be one of the important symbols of Serbia’s victory over the pandemic”.
The country’s prospective 21 June reopening, which coincides with World Music Day, depends on 50% of adults getting vaccinated by that date.
Currently, around 45% of adults in Serbia have been vaccinated against Covid-19 with a further 5% expected in the next few weeks.
The government recently launched an immunisation campaign that would “reward” citizens for their “responsibility” to get inoculated against the virus.
Citizens over the age of 16 who have either already received one or two doses, or will be vaccinated with at least one dose by 31 May will receive a one-time payment of 3,000 dinars (€25). The amount equates to around 5% of the country’s average monthly salary.
The government initiative – believed to be the first of its kind in the world – is aiming to revive Serbia’s immunisation campaign amid waning public interest and growing scepticism.
Read about the international live music industry is divided as to how, if at all, fans’ vaccination status should be taken into account as live activity resumes here.
Exit Festival adds 20 new acts to 2021 line-up
July’s Exit Festival, which is on course to be the first major international festival of 2021, has announced 20 new additions to its line-up.
Joining the Serbian festival’s 20th-anniversary event are acts including Sabaton, Meduza, Asaf Avidan, Artbat and Hot Since 82, who joined previously announced performers such as David Guetta, DJ Snake, Tyga, Eric Prydz, Four Tet, Solomun, Boris Brejcha, Paul Kalkbrenner, Nina Kraviz, Honey Dijon, Metronomy and Sheck Wes. View the full 2021 line-up here.
Exit returns to Petrovaradin Fortress, on the Danube in Novi Sad, from 8 to 11 July.
The new additions come as the mayor of Novi Sad confirms that Exit will be allowed to go ahead with no social distancing restrictions, providing guests can provide proof of vaccination against Covid-19 or a negative rapid antigen test. Tourists can already travel to Serbia with a negative PCR test, and it is expected that testing to enter the country will no longer be a requirement by June.
Made possible due to the high vaccination rate in the Balkan country, “his year’s Exit will be a symbol of Serbia’s victory over the pandemic,” says mayor Miloš Vučević.
“We are very excited about … the opportunity to finally celebrate life together”
Dušan Kovačević, Exit Festival CEO, adds: “We are very excited about this news and the opportunity to finally celebrate life together with our audience from the whole world. Considering all the difficulties we have been facing for over a year, we already feel that the big bang of positive energy will create new dimension of the festival experience and make this year’s Exit unique in the history of the festival.
“However, we must remain responsible in the coming months and we’re calling for all of our visitors who have the opportunity to get vaccinated before the festival – as, no matter what, the health and safety of all visitors, artists and the crew is our top priority.”
Today (29 April) sees Exit launch its buy four, get five offer for groups of friends, in which the fifth ticket is given free of charge with four purchased tickets (€435).
Read IQ’s recent interview with Kovačević here.
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.