It has been 14 years since the oppressive dictatorship of Slobodan Milošević came to an end in October of 2000. Yet that time also marks the beginning of one of the world’s most celebrated festivals, Serbia’s own, EXIT FESTIVAL.

This year EXIT sold a record breaking amount of tickets. The festival saw over 200,000 visitors, a 30 percent increase from recent years, coming from over 60 nations. Founded by three students from Novi Sad,  the festival still takes place in the incredible Petrovaradin fortress. Founder Dušan Kovačević took the time to talk with a handful of journalists, from the 700 accredited, about the past and future of the festival.

Since the early days, EXIT FESTIVAL is famous for being one of the worlds most exciting open-air dance parties, boasting eclectic electronic line-ups and big name headliners. Yet a major part of the foundation of the event, is to continually serve as a reminder of social change and the need for positive reinforcement in Serbia. In essence, EXIT creates its own free state, hence the festival’s full name: “State of Exit”, which has had a significant influence on the development of Serbian youth culture.

Kovačević has witnessed firsthand the changes in Novi Sad.

“The festival brings a lot to the city every year and is also the reason why Novi Sad is now seen as a tourist destination,” said Kovačević. “Many of the international visitors who come to the festival tend to come to Novi Sad throughout the year as well,” he continued. “They have friends here, some of them fell of love, and some of them have even moved to the city.”

Although there is no doubt that EXIT ranks high on the European and international festival circuit, it is still very much a part of Serbia. Kovačević thinks back to the very first festuval, which was comprised of 100 days of continuous parties, theater performances, exhibitions, and concerts from local musicians. “The energy that was released, after years of isolation from the rest of the world, was just amazing,”

Using the power of culture and music, the first EXIT FESTIVAL revolutionized the state of social awareness, pushing those who were formally oppressed to have the tools and confidence to get involved. This pure release of energy was the main reason artists who performed at EXIT spread the word like wildfire.

“Performers would report that playing at exit was much more than playing a show. They witnessed something that went beyond show business, and instead they felt a connection with the people and the location,” said Kovačević.

In combination with the major changes the country went through in 2000, and the positive response they received after the first EXIT, the founders decided to make the first major steps towards establishing the festival.

We decided to bring something that we never had during those lost years,” said Kovačević. “It was in part a huge celebration and also the chance to make up for what was lost during the 90s.”

Since Serbia wasn’t out of the woods yet, it took a little bit of cunning craftiness to achieve their goals.

“In order for EXIT to work the first time, we had to get a license from the state. We proposed that we throw some parties where local groups could perform, while planning out something more, and simultaneously hiding the agenda. For example, using the English form of the word “exit” was a very specific choice. We felt that we wanted to use a symbolic word that explained what we were about, but we decided to use the English word so the police wouldn’t catch on, and it worked.”

“A wonderful thing about EXIT is the mixture of cultures and people from all over the world”

In lieu of their incredible success this year, Kovačević stressed the importance of accepting government subsidies to be able to continue booking amazing acts and the ability to use the fairy tale like location for a great price, but also to preserve the energy of the festival and to be sure that even newcomers are aware of the message behind EXIT.

“We set up this years festival to remind people of the message. We had different events in social arenas, including a lot of talks about local politics, conferences and debates. Of course the fesival is also an amazing a party and that is a main reason why people are coming, but  we make sure to bring the social element to the conversation with everyone that we speak with.”

Over the years, EXIT has fought to find the perfect balance between becoming a more commercial festival and remaining true to its roots. Although the festival is in competition with festivals like the UK’s Glastonbury and Croatia’s Hideout, which bring in huge amounts of money, it is apparent that they have not lost sight of the importance of continuing to host workshops and socio-political roundtables discussing the welfare of the region and a heavy focus on a better future.

One major example is the programs created known as The State of Exit Foundation, which aims to financially support the youth in Novi Sad, by granting financial aid for their studies and facilitates their chances of finding work. They not only offer professional counseling, but the chance to create an international network.

All in all, EXIT FESTIVAL has greatly contributed to the quality of life in Serbia, even in the midst of disagreements and changes throughout the years. The festival has pushed the youth of Serbia to remain socially responsible, while also letting loose and enjoying the beauty of music and culture that was kept from the people for way too long.

After this year’s incredible success, Kovačević explained that they plan to continue to grow by adding new agendas to EXIT FESTIVAL, such as offering packages that allow visitors to explore the Balkans.

Even with the festival’s growing popularity, it is still the people of Serbia, and in particular the residents of Novi Sad, who make up a great portion of the foundation of the event.

“A wonderful thing about EXIT is the mixture of cultures and people from all over the world, which is just as important for them to experience our world as it is important for the people living in Serbia to appreciate and embrace theirs as well.”