Hosted at the Petrovaradin Fortress in the city of Novi Sad in Serbia, the acclaimed EXIT Festival started off as a student movement fighting for freedom and democracy in Serbia. In the fifteen years since, the gathering has played a vital role in bringing together the new nations of former Yugoslavia, which were left war-torn by the end of the last century. Celebrated as a place where hedonism meets activism, it is the social relevance of EXIT that has made it unique and globally recognized, recently winning the highly coveted title of 'Best Major Festival' at the 2014 European Festival Awards.
At first glance, EXIT should be credited for maintaining one of the most diverse lineups in the festival world. Year after year, EXIT showcases the best of techno, house, drum and bass, dubstep, hardcore, metal, punk, hip-hop, and more. EXIT is also famous for giving the same attention to both live and electronic music since its inception. The Main Stage has hosted such names as the Arctic Monkeys, White Stripes, Moby, Motorhead, Sex Pistols, Prodigy, Snoop Dogg, and others over the years, whereas the Dance Arena combines the most vaunted underground DJs with the mainstream EDM ones. This year alone features a range of electronic talent, from Dixon, Tale of Us, and Chris Liebing to Skrillex and Hardwell. Dusan Kovačević, the EXIT Festival founder, maintains that "balancing between 'cool' and 'popular' was always EXIT's skill and it still is."
Considering today's heavily commercial musical landscape, this is an especially remarkable achievement since EXIT remains a non-corporate affair. But Kovačević holds firm that while "most of the festivals in the world were made to sell tickets and beer, EXIT stands apart because it was birthed from social activism."
"It's not about the money," he says, "because we certainly have the least amount of it among all the big festivals in the world. Nevertheless, we maintain a high-quality program and production to this date, being awarded and shortlisted by the world's most influential media on a regular basis." Kovačević believes this keeps EXIT even more responsible and motivated to further stay in touch with its fans, who he still considers to be the most integral ingredient of EXIT's distinct ambience at their beloved Petrovaradin Fortress.
Digging deeper into these roots of the festival's foundation, EXIT's evolution from a social movement to one of the most prestigious music events in the world is one that Kovačević remembers well.
In 1996, as he entered college, protests against Serbia's then-President Slobodan Milošević and his oppressive dictatorship began. Kovačević immediately joined the ongoing college blockade and demonstrations. One morning, the father of his girlfriend at the time asked him, "Why don't you march to Belgrade? Give the protest some added weight!" So Kovačević went to the protest leaders meeting, pitched them an idea, and initiated his first protest activity. "I remember the way people greeted me when we entered Belgrade after an 80-kilometer long parade," Kovačević recalls. "Over 10,000 students welcomed us. The spirit of that student protest in 1996 to 1997 is still entrenched in the very core and character of what EXIT is now."
In 1998, Kovačević then organized a protest concert, which he regards as an embryo of what EXIT eventually became. Held in the big sports hall in Novi Sad, the show was rife with political symbolism. The most powerful example Kovačević recalls was his team building a huge wall made of styrofoam. He then placed a group of drummers behind it, which were lead by the famous Serbian progressive rock musician Dragoljub Đuričić. At one point in the performance, the wall exploded. Kovačević cites it as the "emblematic message that young people wanted to open up to the world." The first media wave arrived soon after and Kovačević's pre-EXIT project was featured on an entire page in the opposition press papers.
In 2000, Kovačević decided to go with a more radical protest against Milošević's regime—one that would last 100 days. He wanted to invite people in with concerts and parties; to give them what he refers to as a "necessary courage" to endure the scorching political climate. That "necessary courage" being inspired by music. The title "EXIT" was eventually conceived from a friend's recommendation.
During those 100 days, there were 34 concerts. Some of the country's biggest bands played, there were 12 theatre productions, over 120 film projections, 20 discussion panels, 40 huge parties, and 11 performances. The last concert was held two days before the election, with the message "He's done" spread in front of 20,000 visitors. The peaceful Serbian Revolution followed, which spurred on the end of Milošević's reign.
Once Milošević was gone, Kovačević and the EXIT team decided to bring the world to Novi Sad and develop their concept into a full-fledged music festival of European calibre. The Petrovaradin Fortress provided an ideal location. An 18th-century stronghold located on the right bank of the Danube river, it remains the soul of EXIT Festival to this day.
To this day, EXIT proudly continues their social campaigns. In fact, several of community and humanitarian missions have gained international awareness, including an anti-trafficking crusade done in cooperation with MTV. Each year EXIT also raises awareness for LGBT rights, in addition to working annually on key issues of re-branding Serbia and global youth topics, such as the problem of verbal violence on social media of today. EXIT also once invited Europe's Commissioner for Enlargement, Olle Rehn, to the festival for a panel and a football match at their campsite against Serbia's Minister for Foreign Affairs, where he promised to fight even harder to eliminate the visa regime for Serbian citizens who wanted to travel to European countries once again. "When Europe finally did remove it a few years later," Kovačević reveals, "Mr. Rehn publically displayed his 'State of EXIT' honorary citizenship as a part of keeping his promise."
Surely enough, if EXIT has proved anything, it's that music is a universal language that can connect and bring people together to make the world a better place. This is reflected in how EXIT has grown over the years to attract a worldwide audience of 2.5 million visitors from 60 different countries. "It's hard to put a finger on it, we just call it the EXIT Factor," explains Kovačević. "EXIT actually grew into the EXIT Adventure, which is an umbrella name for both EXIT and our new Sea Dance festival on Jaz [near Budva in Montenegro]. Two festivals in two neighboring countries, it's a true festival holiday that lasts for more than 10 days." The crew is even launching yet another one in Romania called Revolution, which Dusan envisions rounding out EXIT Adventure as a trilogy of festivals.
Certainly it's a full plate. But as his duties continue to grow, one thing about Kovačević remains abundantly clear: not only does he remain an activist at heart, but EXIT's original message is still as strong today in its expanded form. "Just a month ago my son was born, so I now have to work even harder to make it better for his generation. I hope that EXIT will be one of the uniting forces for all free-minded people that understand we as a mankind need to evolve very quickly if we want to survive."
This year's EXIT Festival takes place between July 9 - 12. For more information, you can visit their website by clicking here.
Christopher is on Twitter.