In the early evening of the final night of EXIT festival 2013 I found myself backstage with a group of European journalists, sat in a small circle of chairs. We were there to speak to Dušan Kovačević, one of EXIT's founders, to discuss the festival, its political beginnings and its status as one of the ten best European festivals.

Dušan, Bojan Bošković and Ivan Milivojev founded the festival whilst at university in 2000 with an aim to protest the Serbian government and bring social and political issues to the attention of Serbia's youth. 13 years later the festival is still going strong, with this year's festival attracting its largest audience yet - 35,000 people turned out for The Prodigy's headline set on Friday. It's little wonder then, that when Dušan joined us he had a big, welcoming smile on his face. He took his seat and looked at each of us in turn - there were four of us in total, plus three photographers milling about. He broke the ice by asking how we were enjoying the festival so far and we all respond enthusiastically - talking about acts we've seen and the general atmosphere within Petrovaradin Fortress.

"So, tell me what you want to know," he asked...

We had plenty of questions and Dušan was happy to answer them. At no point did it feel like four journalists interviewing one man - Dušan did most of the talking, but the whole thing felt more like a discussion.

One of the key questions we had was on the formation of the festival. The first EXIT was started as a protest against the Serbian government, whilst the second festival (in 2001) was more of a celebration. How did it feel for him to see the festival change in that way?

Dušan Kovačević: The first EXIT, we called it 'Zero EXIT', was in 2000 and it was totally local. At that time we were under the regime [of Slobodan Milošević], a very oppressive regime, and you couldn't have international concerts or anything else. So it had a very local character and lasted for 100 days. We had concerts, we had parties, we had movie projections, exhibitions and theatre plays. The main aim of that EXIT was to motivate young people to get socially active … to use the power of culture, of music, to get people involved.

The democratic changes happened in Serbia in late 2000, so in 2001 we thought 'what do we want to do next? What is our next move?' Keeping in mind that my generation at that time had had a decade of sanctions, war, isolation - so no international concerts. We said 'ok let's try, somehow, to catch up those lost years for our generation and let's set up the festival'. That was partly a celebration but also trying to make up for what was lost during the 90s. And what was also very important, for a former [part of] Yugoslavia, is during the 80s, Serbia was not part of that eastern communist bloc. We had a domestic culture at that time and in the 80s had a lot of international concerts and everything else.

So when this war started, this generation knew what they were missing. That is why when EXIT happened in the fortress [in 2001] that celebration was on the fortress for the first time. When that happened the energy that people unleashed was amazing and all the performers said this was the best gig of our tour or our career. EXIT became internationally popular because performers were feeling an energy they weren't seeing on tour any more. There was an appreciation and they felt something more than show business - something authentic. Then they went home and the word of mouth spread and international visitors started to arrive. So that's the story in short.

Dušan finished his abridged version of events with a laugh. Throughout the half an hour discussion we had he laughed quite frequently and it's reassuring to speak to someone, who has obviously faced great difficulties in their life and career, yet still maintain a fundamentally positive outlook on things. He's asked what difficulties he faced in founding the festival and running it year to year.

DK: To give you an idea, I was imprisoned once for political reasons, so it was not easy. EXIT is especially hard to organise, bearing in mind that the economy, the local economy, is not strong enough so we can't charge high ticket prices and sponsors do not have the budgets to match UK festivals. So it is always very difficult to raise money and organise. However, EXIT is always voted one of the best - ten best - European festivals.

What is good is that the government understand and see [the festival] as very important for the promotion of the country and the city, and the economy as well. So we have some subsidies from the government, which helps - but not enough. But at least it helps to resolve that issue

The oppressive regime of Slobodan Milošević must have presented a number of restriction for the founders when organising any event, particularly one which ran as long as the first EXIT festival did. How did they pull it off?

DK: That was very funny. In order to work you had to get a licence from the state, so we said we wanted to have some parties and that some kids were playing. We were hiding the agenda. Also the word EXIT, we particularly wanted to use a symbolic word which would explain what we are all about - we wanted the exit from the situation we were in in that period - but then we said, ok let's use the English word because we don't want the police to catch on to the meaning. And it worked!

So has Dušan seen any permanent changes for Novi Sad as a result of the festival?

DK: Yes, of course. EXIT is the reason why Novi Sad sees itself as a tourist destination throughout the year as well. It is very important for the city and some calculations say that the city of Novi Sad earns some 50 million euros from international guests which is very important for the local economy.

What's interesting is that many international visitors who come to the festival also come to Novi Sad throughout the year as well. They have friends here, some of them fall in love and some of them even move. There is a guy, he's from the UK, I think he even got married here. He set up a company for customer service for UK and US visitors - so there are definitely important benefits and changes coming from this festival, basically improving the image of Serbia.

The EXIT's political routes are an important part of the festival's history, and certainly important for the people of Serbia and Novi Sad in particular. With the growth in international visitors and the image of EXIT as a party scene, is this activist angle being lost?

DK: It's a good question. One of the priorities that was set up for this years festival was to remind people of the roots of the festival, hence the slogan 'R:EVOLUTION'. We also organise different things in the social arena. On Wednesday we had a conference about the re-branding of the country, which is very important locally, and we also had debates and campaigns.

What we are also trying to do is, as you said, for the festival to not just be a party. Of course we have to be a party, because it is a party and that is the main reason people are coming, but also we, and I personally, want that social aspect to be very high [in priority]. There are a lot of things that we will organise in the future in regards to that. During previous years there have been many social campaigns. For instance, one of those was a campaign for the abolition of visas for Serbian youth and that campaign was successful - it resulted in the visa being abolished. And even when Serbia were signing a deal with EU, the EU commissioner at the press conference with the Serbian president, showed a diploma from the State of EXIT (the charitable foundation set up by the organisers). So that goes to show that EXIT as well as the party arena, is respected in the social arena as well.

One of the key social aspects of EXIT is that a proportion of ticket sales go towards the regeneration of Petrovaradin Fortress.

DK: We set up a fund which uses part of the ticket money for the regeneration of the fortress and promoting the fortress as a tourist attraction and location. This is of course not something [we are not doing in isolation] we work with the city to make, to join efforts, to make a really good fund to have a real difference.

The fortress itself is perhaps one of the world's most unique and picturesque festival venues. Why did they move from the University campus (home of EXIT 00) to the fortress in 2001?

DK: The fortress was a really logical and ideal location for the festival. As you can see you don't have sounds overlap and also it's a really great venue. Probably, let's say one of the best festival venues in the world - if not the best.

Over the last 13 years EXIT has seen a rising reputation and growing attendance numbers. Unsurprisingly this has resulted in a number of takeover bids. Does Dušan see EXIT's independence as an important thing to maintain in order to stay true to it's roots?

DK: Yes I think it is important. On the other hand it is also very hard in an economic situation such as ours. We feel that EXIT differs from other festivals on several things. One is the amazing venue and the energy that is felt here, and the other is that it was not set up for selling drinks and tickets, it was set up for a higher agenda. So we feel that in order to preserve that it is very important to stay independent.

As EXIT grows and becomes more well known globally, the number of international visitors will continue to increase. Is it important to keep a large Serbian crowd, as evidenced by the number of local acts playing.

DK: That's very important. At one point in the history of the festival, international visitors started to have a dominant role and we felt that we had to have a strong base of local people, because they are the essence of the festival. So it is very important for us. There are many festivals, let's say in Croatia for instance, that are 100% international visitors and we feel the biggest strength of EXIT, aside from the venue, is that we have the complete mixture of cultures from all over and it's not like a one nation festival, but 60. We have visitors from 60 nations, from all continents. But it's crucial that it still belongs to the people of Serbia.

Also in that respect, we started a campaign that will be very important next year. The campaign is 'I Am EXIT' and the logic behind it is that we invite people to be a part of the festival making process. So they are giving ideas for stages, for everything. Our view is that we need to keep the character, which is the stages, the fortress, and everything else but that there are millions of very creative people, and organisations as well, who we want to be part of the festival. We want to do something like an open source system for creativity, for people to get involved and really feel that the festival is their own.

And how does he see the festival progressing in the future?

DK: For me personally, I started to get involved once again operationally from the last year. I did some work outside [of the festival] for education and personal work. So our focus for this year was to have the best festival possible and we've had some great results. We're almost at capacity every night this year. So this festival is a great success for us and, especially with the Balkans facing economic problems, EXIT is the only festival to see such a rise [in visitor numbers].

Our plan for the future is to connect different destinations in the Balkans and not to offer just EXIT itself but to do something like seven to ten days packages that will include EXIT and some of the coolest destinations in the Balkans. We want international people to really explore the Balkans which is very very cool - has great people, great nature, great food, great prices. And we feel that this is the next step for people.

My personal is to change things every year. The first thing was to change the number of days. Last year was four days, this year it's five. We want to change it [the festival] every year and for the people to have a different experience every year they come.


This interview was set up for us by the EXIT Press Team and I was joined by Joe Gamp of Pulse, Amanda Gray of Local Suicide and Stephen Stallone of Distract TV.