Pollstar traveled to Novi Sad, Serbia, to witness Europe’s first major festival after almost 18 months of near silence on the continent. EXIT Festival counted a total of 180,000 guests – between 42,000 and 48,000 per day – on its spectacular site, the Petrovaradin Fortress, July 8-11. It was a feat made possible by a well thought-out safety concept and tireless negotiations with decision makers in the run-up to the event.
We had the chance to sit down with EXIT founder and CEO Dušan Kovačević after this historic occasion to speak about the challenges as well as the joy of making the first major festival post-COVID a reality.
We also learned a lot about the history of EXIT Festival, which started as a student protest against the cruel regime of Slobodan Milošević and played a big part in bringing him down. To this day, EXIT remains a symbol for Serbia’s independence, its hospitality and revolutionary spirit.
In 2021, EXIT Festival achieved something revolutionary again by celebrating its 20th anniversary with a crowd of people thirsting for reunion. Here’s our full video interview with Dušan, as well as some highlights below.
“For us, the Dance Arena is like some sort of Temple of Electronic Music. People go there not to party, but it’s like they’re going to some holy place to honor what electronic music is all about.”
On launching EXIT Festival as a student protest against dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000:
“Wars, extreme poverty, isolation, we couldn’t travel anywhere. You really felt like you were growing up in a prison. For us, it was a matter of life and death to get rid of the Milosevic regime and to liberate ourselves, and to start to live a normal life.
“We were thinking, how to boost the protest, and how to finish the task and liberate the country. I figured that music is one of the strongest unifying weapons let’s say, that can gather masses. That is how EXIT [was founded].”
On the feat of pulling of the first major festival post-COVID in Europe:
“During the pandemic we heard many voices that said, we are not getting back to normal, that there will be a new normal. There were some articles about the cities of the future, where humans don’t need to interact, and we don’t want that to live in that future.
“So, this year, EXIT was our statement – when I say our, I mean all the people that gathered – our statement, that we don’t accept a future of that kind.
“We had very strict measures for entering the festival. I’m sorry that we had to do it, but we had to do it in order to make the event. It’s proof that, if you do these kind of measures, you can do a festival even in such times.
“Together with this incredible energy that was here for the last four days, I would say, this is the biggest takeaway from this year’s EXIT: if we are determined, there are no obstacles that can prevent us from being together. And safe.”
On how he experienced the festival:
“What happened really exceeded my wildest expectations. The energy was so dense, I felt that you could touch it. I think that there are no words I can say that will do justice for what happened?”
On the planning of it:
“It was a fight (…). Even in some moment in June there was a sign that maybe the government would change its mind, and that festivals will not be allowed. What I said was, this energy can’t be contained, and it’s better to happen in a safe environment on the fortress than to be on the streets with no way to make it safe.”
On EXIT’s importance to Novi Sad and Serbia:
“The journalist Tim Judah, for The Economist, he said, if Serbia was to invest all of its budget into PR, it wouldn’t do as much as Novac [Djokovic] and EXIT did for the country. And that’s probably true, it’s priceless.”
On the future of festival organization:
“I think there is a need on a global level to do what EXIT did in Serbia. This was not a gift from government to us. This was every day of lobbying, lobbying, lobbying. 10% of my time I was organizing a festival, 90% I was trying to open the country.
“This is something that needs to happen on the global level, and we need to unite to lobby the global community, the World Health Organization as well as each of the national governments.
“I hope EXIT gave the international music industry the proof that it can happen safely even during the pandemic.
“After the pandemic, nothing is certain anymore. Nothing. We will never be able to announce a festival and say it’s 100% that it will happen. Force majeure exists, and the pandemic will probably be the biggest danger. We’ll have to live with it, and believe in the best case scenario. “
On the future of EXIT Festival:
“I can firmly state, if it’s just up to me, EXIT will never be sold to an investment fund or any other corporation. We will do our maximum to keep EXIT independent, because if the budget sheet [becomes] the ultimate [criteria] of the festival, the soul and everything that makes a festival can be undermined.”
On advice for up-and-coming promoters:
“If you put a lot of love and energy into the festival, the people will feel it. If you’re doing it just for the money, you’re just one of the consumer brands. The new generation, especially, is very sensitive, they can feel things like that. All of you have souls. Put it into the festival, and let the fans feel your soul.”