EXIT: Strengthened by a History of Struggle, Activism and Headlines

As music fans prepare to kick of the summer festival season across Europe, W!LD RooSTeR thought it was prime time to look at some of the headline grabbers in the history of one of the most exciting events on the calendar: Serbia’s world-class EXIT Festival.

EXIT has grown into an annual four-day festival attracting 200,000 people to the Petrovaradin Fortress in the small Vojvodina town of Novi Sad. Each year, more than 6,000 visitors attend from the UK and those figures are still rising. Since 2007, more than half of all EXIT visitors have come from abroad, with the UK its primary overseas focus.

EXIT has received substantial government funding, particularly from the Vojvodina region, pumped in to promote the festival at home and abroad. This month, Vojvodina’s Assembly Speaker Sandor Egeresi endorsed the EXIT festival as a major tourist boost and source of international promotion for the region.  “EXIT is one of the most popular and important events in Vojvodina,’ he told a trade presentation at the Serbian Embassy in London.

EXIT 2011 will run 7-10 July, when an impressive line-up of international bands and DJs take to the Petrovaradin Fortress. Headliners include Pulp, Grinderman, Jamiroquai, Arcade Fire, Hadouken, Underworld, Portishead and Beirut. Deadmau5 Fedde Le Grand, James Zabiela, Joris Voorn, Marco Carola, Gramophonedzie, Steve Aoki and Serbia’s Marko Nastic will perform in the Dance Arena.

While word is that this year is shaping up to be possibly the most successful year yet, it hasn’t all been plane sailing for EXIT and its organisers. Here we review some of the more high-profile hurdles they have met along the way. These are issues that have made them stronger and more prepared to put on an annual international event on the scale of EXIT.

Over the years, EXIT has been at the heart of controversies and headlines, including arrests for alleged financial wrong-doing, accusations of bowing to corporate brands and right wing politicians, and claims that artists were dropped for their political views. Unsurprisingly, the details of some of the accusations were disputed by organisers.

From its student activist beginnings in 2000, through the inevitable finance problems that plague most long-running festivals, EXIT has steadily grown in reputation and scope, now regularly staging around 600 performers and DJs.

While taking less of a full-frontal political assault than in the early days, EXIT has still been a flag-waver for social issues, such as nationalism, xenophobia, unemployment, censorship, drug use and prejudice.  How many of those present actually pick up on those messages and can remember them after four days of hard partying is another matter.

EXIT was born in 2000, when three Novi Sad students mobilised a protest against the Milosevic regime under cover of a music and arts festival. That event lasted 100 days, culminating in a call-to-action one day before elections that saw the downfall of Slobodan Milošević. The resulting changes in Serbia encouraged the EXIT organisers to plan an annual regional music festival to be billed as a celebration of their country returning from years in international isolation.

After straightening out issues with the authorities over use of the venue, EXIT was held at the stunning Petrovaradin Fortress, high on the banks of the Danube. That first festival lasted nine days and featured bands from Serbia, as well as regional theatre performances and workshops on reconciliation among the nations of former Yugoslavia.

The following year brought the first problems with upset at the lack of big names on the bill. A €300,000 loss also led to allegations of financial mismanagement and calls for the creation of a special commission to look into the festival’s finances.

Organisers took notice of at least some of these calls and gave the festival a much-needed makeover. It was shortened to a more manageable four days and most of the non-musical content was dropped. This allowed the festival to steadily grow into one of the biggest summer music events – although not as big as Guca!

International media soon latched onto EXIT, with MTV coming on board in 2004, followed by the BBC broadcasting live in 2005.

In 2004, the arrest of four EXIT organisers on alleged embezzlement charges almost toppled the house of cards three weeks before gates opened. Two of those were released almost immediately, while EXIT Society President Dušan Kovačević and General Manager Bojan Bošković were given 30 days detention. The EXIT team strongly denied all charges, claiming they had been the target of political persecution. Kovačević and Bošković were released after seven days of detention and no formal charges were pressed.

More political twists and turns followed the next year, when a protocol deal signed with the city’s new officials – members of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) – ruffled the feathers of NGOs and left-wing politicians, who were prompted to branded organisers ‘money hungry’. Former President of the Vojvodina Provincial Assembly Nenad Canak felt compelled to question adherence to the founding values. Kovačević argued that the deal was the only way to keep the festival in Novi Sad.

Organisers again came in for flak in 2005 when a proposed minute of silence to commemorate victims of the Srebrenica massacre was called off by organisers, who were accused of backing down in the face of right wing threats and an on-stage flare-up.

In 2008 controversy struck again, when Bjork’s management claimed she was dropped from EXIT for speaking out in support of Kosovo’s independence. Her management released an email from EXIT organisers to support their claim, prompting EXIT to deny that she had been dropped.  Organisers said they had not cancelled any artist’s appearance for political reasons. They were later compelled to confirm that the email did actually exist, but claimed it was not an official EXIT statement.  After some back-peddling, organisers issued an open invitation for Bjork to appear at EXIT.  She hasn’t yet performed at EXIT.

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