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The past, present & future of the most important festival in the Balkans...

Exit isn't a festival, it's a movement. Held each year in a gargantuan fortress that sits atop Serbia’s second capital of Novi Sad, Exit is loved and touted as much by locals as it is by the jet-set festival crowd — a shining beacon of youth-fronted revolution in the Balkan region.

Born out of student uprisings against an oppressive regime at the close of the '90s, Exit festival has grown exponentially since its maiden voyage (titled Zero Exit) in 2000, inviting the world to peak inside Serbia's once-closed borders in the process. The success of the Exit brand has been so immense that last year its founders decided to expand to a brand new event in the Balkan region, transporting Exit's mantra to Montenegro's idyllic coastline with the aptly named Sea Dance festival.

This year saw Exit’s run mean more than ever before to its founders, as the party institution celebrated an impressive fifteen-year legacy inside Petrovaradin Fortress' rocky walls. More than just an excuse to get on the sauce, Exit has helped to patch the conflicts between ex-Yugoslavia’s super separatist nations, with big plans for what's coming next for its so-called 'Exit Generation'.

DJ Mag tripped out to Belgrade, Novi Sad and Budva for Exit's fifteenth round, to find out what Exit means to Balkan club-kids today, and what the future really holds for this revolutionary and much-loved festival brand.

Rewind to the Serbian capital of Belgrade in 2000. Governed by brutal dictator Slobodan Miloševic and part of a corrupt, deeply flawed and quietly crumbling communist regime, Serbia is in a veritable state of ruin. Strict United Nations sanctions and severe economic inflation add to the country’s global isolation, whilst the Serbian public are kept in the dark thanks to a tightly controlled media and wide-spread government propaganda. 

Three university students, Dušan Kovačević, Bojan Bošković and Ivan Milivojev, decide to throw a clandestine hundred-day event consisting of concerts, exhibitions, movie screens and local theatre, in the hopes of motivating young people to challenge Miloševic’s regime. This party is called Zero Exit.

The following year Serbia’s crippling sanctions were lifted in favour of a democratic political system, allowing international acts and media inside Serbia's borders for the first time in a decade. It’s here that Exit’s primary purpose morphs.

No longer a vessel solely for immediate social action, the ‘zero’ title was dropped as co-founder Dušan saw the opportunity for Exit to become a platform with which to entice global acts, opening Serbia’s borders to the wider world in the process.

Roll any well-known techno DJ off your tongue and they're bound to have spun at Exit in the last fifteen years — cue legendary selectors Sven Vath, Carl Cox, Laurent Garnier et al.
British dance acts in particular have proven consistently fashionable with Serbian youth since the '90s; legendary rave outfit The Prodigy are hugely popular in the region.

They last headlined Exit in 2013 and returned to the Balkans this year to front Exit’s younger sister, Sea Dance festival.

One UK mega act previously missing from Exit’s impressive musical alumni is Faithless; the group finally made their debut in full strobe-soaked glory this year.

It’s Exit’s revolutionary roots that have made the lyrics of acts like The Prodigy and Faithless so potent — ‘We Come One’ was received with wild fanfare when frontman Maxi Jazz chanted its famous tag-line at the close of Faithless’ new live show. “Lyrically, I think Faithless' lyrics really mean something to people here, it really resonates,” says Faithless member Sister Bliss when we meet side stage on the second night of Exit. “In places that there has been war, strife and genocide, Maxi's lyrics really take on a new dimension.”

There’s little doubt that promoting Serbia as a tourist destination in the early 2000s was a hard sell. However, over the last fifteen years, income from Serbian tourism has rapidly been on the up — it now accounts for over 2.5 billion dollars of the nation’s yearly revenue.

Exit has been instrumental in promoting Serbia as a safe, and most importantly, appealing destination to the outside world; no mean feat considering bombs were dropped on Belgrade by NATO during many clubbers’ lifetime. This year’s Exit saw a spike in tourists from Belgium and France, whilst the event has always pulled a strong UK contingent. Exit’s appeal, it would seem, is only getting broader.

It’s not just the brains behind Exit festival that have been flying the flag for Serbian nightlife since the revolution. A small crop of Serbian DJs have also slowly been bubbling to dance music’s surface over the last decade, no more so than respected vinyl selector and national hero, Marko Nastic. The crowd reaction to Nastic’s set when we watch him in Exit’s Dance Arena is suitably reverent; he closes out his set with a spin of DJ Koze’s future classic, ‘XTC’.

Nastic’s own foundations in dance music smack of a similar liberal ideology to that of Dušan's. He kick-started his career playing ecstasy-fuelled raves in '90s Belgrade with Dejan Milićević and Milos Pavlovi, as part of well-known trio Teenage Techno Punks. “During the '90s it was difficult to buy records,” says Dejan Milićević, who played twice at this year's Exit. “I used to take a train to Budapest to buy vinyl and it would arrive at 3am, so we'd have to hang out in the city until the morning when the shop opened. I was only sixteen.”

TTP's members still spin at Exit each year alongside Serbian up-and-comers; it’s yet another way the festival continually honours its past and promotes its key musical players from a cross-section of Balkan nations. “The first time I came to Exit was in 2007, just as a visitor.

My first year playing was 2010, and since then I'm playing every single year. It's very special to me,” says Lea Dobricic. After Nastic, Dobricic is probably the best example of a Serbian DJ who's taken her profile worldwide — she regularly DJs in Ibiza and Europe, and last year nabbed an ongoing residency at Elrow.

Exit's booking policy is just as diverse as its crowd; it’s the only festival DJ Mag has been to that features both underground techno and death metal on its wide-ranging bill. This year saw a more polarizing dance music line-up than ever before, from the tropical house jams of Thomas Jack to the earbleed EDM of Dutch DJ Hardwell, it was a shift away from Exit’s once largely techno-facing line-up. The change-up seems to have worked — EXIT clocked a record-breaking 55,000 attendees for its Saturday night show

Night one saw the most techno-heavy line-up of Exit’s four mammoth nights — think Adam Beyer, Joseph Capriati, Octave One, Chris Liebing, plus Serbian golden girl Lea Dobricic, whilst the Dance Arena’s closing set on night four was left in the hands of Roman Flügel back-to-back with Simian Mobile Disco.

“Programming is important to us. You can start your night in the upper fortress with some chilled out tunes, you can visit the Latino stage and dance salsa, you can go to the silent disco, listen to some rock in one of the bars. Then you move down to the Main Stage with some of the top pop acts in the world, and then head to the Dance Arena for house and techno after that,” says Exit’s communication director, Sagor Meškovi. “Your night progresses with the music.”

A trip to Exit’s gargantuan festival site does really feel like a lovingly-crafted journey. It stretches over 20 stages of rock, pop, dance and indie, plus art installations, watering holes and interactive performances.

Thanks to Serbia's continued exclusion from the EU and turbulent past, a trip to Exit festival is also overwhelmingly cheap — another appealing factor for UK fans in the jet-set festival flock. A ticket to Exit will set you back about half of what a similar UK event would, plus drinks and food clock in at up to 70% less than at home.

Exit sells its tickets at a reduced rate to Serbian locals, banking on European visitors to substitute the festival's income. But it’s not just about selling tickets and crunching numbers.

Exit prides itself on its strong sense of social and corporate responsibility, channeling profits into various charitable causes — including an ongoing fund to maintain and restore the fortress. “It’s about the social message of the festival for me, that’s why I keep doing it,” says Dušan. “You know, festivals started with things like Woodstock, as a part of a social movement, and somewhere along the line, this message has been lost.”

With Exit’s origins rooted in the living memory of most of its staff, Dušan has big plans for the brand. It wasn’t until last year that he and his team decided it was time to expand into a new event, kick-starting Dušan’s new passion project, Sea Dance. Not one to do things by halves, Exit’s Sea Dance festival picked up a gong for best medium-sized festival at last year’s European Festival Awards, though its beachside location on the idyllic Montenegrin coast makes it feel vastly different to Exit.

The thing that ties the two events together is the brand’s new party tour, Exit Adventure, a package travel deal that includes entry to both festivals plus travel and accommodation options. Interestingly, it's not just Western European jet setters that are signing up for Exit Adventure, but also club kids from around the Balkan region.

“The ‘90s were dark, very, very dark. Exit was the first festival that really crossed borders for ex-Yugoslav nations. You can hear accents from all different Balkan nations in our crowd at Exit and Sea Dance. [Exit] was the first event you could hear Croatian bands in Serbia, Bosnian bands playing with Serbians, Slovenians, Montenegrins.

At the time it was a shock, but it was very important to help get us out to the world,” says Sagor Meškovi proudly. “I think that attitude continues today, people come from all over the world for Exit, and hopefully, now for Sea Dance.”

With just two days in between the two festivals, Dušan describes the whole affair “as a very complex logistical operation” with most of the festival’s main elements imported from Serbia. So why bother? “Because this location is amazing, that’s why we chose Montenegro.

There’s not many places in Europe where you can have loud music, a beautiful beach, plus space for camping all in the same place. It’s special,” he muses, when we chat backstage on Sea Dance’s closing night. It’s no secret that Montenegro’s seafront is stunning, with this year's Sea Dance welcoming ex-Moloko frontwoman Roisin Murphy, Rudimental and crowd favourites The Prodigy over its four-day run.

Sixteen years on from Zero Exit and the flickering embers of the Miloševic regime are still alight. Earlier this year, the aftershocks of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia and Herzegovina echoed through the nation, with current Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic assaulted by an angry mob at the annual memorial service in Bosnia.

Dušan says he’s hoping to build an “Exit generation” — a new flock of young people who won't have to experience the bloodshed and tyranny of past generations. “We want to keep this region together, the Balkans, and given our turbulent past this is important. We want a new Exit generation of young people, who will grow up in a peaceful and stable place,” he says, passionately.

Widely regarded as the worst act of genocide since World World II, the recent reaction to Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic proves past Balkan tensions are still yet to fully heal. But thanks to social activists like Dušan and his Exit team, the future looks overwhelmingly bright.
“I genuinely and deeply believe that music is the best tool we have,” smiles Dušan, confidently. “We want to have fun, and we want to spread this social message. That's what's important about Exit, that's why we do it.”

Photos: Kris Cowley / Here & Now

01. Faithless 'We Come One'
Faithless returned to the Main Stage at Exit for their final encore with this 2007 classic; a special moment considering Serbia's war torn past.

02. Aphrohead 'Let's Prance (Radioslave & Thomas Gandey Last Communication Mix)'
Adam Beyer and Joseph Capriati dropped Aphrohead's summer slammer at the opening of their set in the Dance Arena.

03. DJ Koze 'XTC'
Serbian DJ legend Marko Nastic closed his set with DJ Koze's new trippy classic 'XTC' on Pampa Records, a perfect match to 7am sunshine in the Dance Arena!

04. Leftfield 'Afrika Shox'
Leftfield brought their new live show to Serbia for Exit, with the tribal rhythms on 'Afrika Shox' a festival standout.

05. Little Louis ' French Kiss'
UK DJ Doorly dropped Lil Louis' 'French Kiss' as the sun was sinking low on The Sound You Need stage at Sea Dance.

06. Roisin Murphy 'Dear Miami'
One of the only songs the singer performed from her biggest LP 'Overpowered', 'Dear Miami' sounded divine in Sea Dance's Main Arena.

07. The Prodigy 'Take Me To The Hospital'
The Prodigy go hard. 'Smack My Bitch Up' followed by 'Take Me To The Hospital' closed their set at Sea Dance.

08. Mano Le Tough 'Primitive People (Tale Of Us Remix)'
Tale Of Us took it old school with a stripped-down version of their mega remix of Irish Innervisions star, Mano Le Tough, during their set at Exit's Dance Arena.

09. Kölsch 'Cassiopeia'
The closing track of Kölsch's Exit set, 'Cassiopeia' was the perfect ending to a magical mix from the Dane.

10. Hardwell 'Insomnia'
Serbians voted 'Insomnia' the ultimate Exit song before the festival, and when Hardwell dropped the Faithless classic a new generation of Serbian youth lost their shit to it.