EXIT founder Dušan Kovačević for one of the leading music industry magazines IQ mag on the upcoming festival’s 20th anniversary celebration this summer, overcoming challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic and the biggest lessons learned over the last two decades.
How big is your full-time team, and how big is the team during a festival?
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 EFA’s twice – 2013, 2107. 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 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. 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 EXIT Dance stage almost as big as main (25k vs 35k) – how important is it? And why do you mix musical styles so much?
We are one of the first festivals to 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, definitely — 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 that makes 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.
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, Eric 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 music industry was brought to its knees, we are proud to have managed to realise Life Stream, in cooperation 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’s of the shows werelater viewed around 8 million times. With this, we practically started marking the 20th-anniversary celebration, the finale of which will take place from the 8th to the 11th of July 2021 at our Fortress.
What’s the plan for 2021 in terms of capacity and mitigation measures in place regarding Covid? How will 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.
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.
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 segment 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.
How do you see the festival developing over the next 20 years?
The next 20 years will practically 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 revolution, 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 return of an embrace—an embrace between the audience and the artists and an embrace between all of us.