In Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” the author advises that “in the midst of chaos, there is also opportunity.” Organizers of Serbia’s Exit Festival took that message to heart over the weekend, as they pulled off a largely successful (and, they hope, safe) music festival, the biggest in Europe since the pandemic began.
Held every July in and around Novi Sad’s sprawling Petrovaradin Fortress, Exit Festival drew around 180,000 people spread across four nights (the event wrapped up in the early morning hours Monday), according to organizers. And while the event, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this year, has long been a magnet for music fans from neighboring Balkan countries, new festival aficionados from countries such as France, Germany and Spain flocked to Exit over the weekend as most major music festivals in Europe were forced to cancel events for a second successive year due to continuing coronavirus concerns.
Serbia has shown surprising success in vaccination rates, with around 2.5 million fully vaccinated in the country, which has a population just shy of seven million. Serbia’s health ministry said only two people in the country have been diagnosed with the Delta variant so far, as reported by Reuters earlier this month.
Accordingly, Exit Festival, with the crucial blessing of local government officials, was in a good position to hold the mass gathering, which still mandated that all attendees either show proof of vaccination or a negative PCR test as a condition of entry. Despite the fact that multiple studies from recent test event concerts in countries such as Germany, France, England, Spain and the Netherlands have shown that concerts (especially outdoor events such as Exit) can be held without becoming so-called “super spreader” events as long as entry measures are followed, governments in Europe remain somewhat spooked to give the proverbial green light to music festivals. Just four days ago, the Netherlands re-imposed restrictions on nightclubs and music festivals mere weeks after they were lifted, in an effort to put the brakes on a suspicious swell of coronavirus infections among young adults.
Coronavirus concerns were largely absent once fans made it onto the festival grounds over the weekend, as the mask-less masses swooned to such names as David Guetta, DJ Snake, Amelie Lens, Charlotte de Witte , Sabaton, Paul Kalkbrenner, Maceo Plex and more. But as a reminder that travel and health concerns are still present, many performers were last-minute no-shows at the event, including American rapper Tyga, German DJ Boris Brejcha, Scottish DJ Denis Sulta, British DJ/producer Hot Since 82 and American DJ/producer Honey Dijon – forcing Exit organizers to scramble and re-jigger line-ups at the last minute. Luckily for fans, Exit managed to placate ticket holders and reward them with longer sets from favorites, or surprises sprinkled throughout the weekend.
While Exit Festival has hosted large rock or rock-adjacent acts in years past such as Guns N’ Roses, Arctic Monkeys and the Cure (this year, Exit featured Swedish metal band Sabaton), the event has traditionally been a dance music-heavy affair, and this year was no different — with DJs serving as the main draw and spread across multiple stages, including the main stage.
What was different this year was a greater number of female DJs, who did much of the heavy lifting to help make the 2021 edition shine. The opening night of the festival featured some of the top draws on the international festival circuit such as Belgium’s Amelie Lens and Charlotte de Witte (as well as local DJ Tijana T and Croatia’s Insolate). Revelers were not disappointed, especially on Thursday as Lens thrilled Exit’s Dance Arena stage. By the time Lens dropped her own pulsing track “Higher” around 30 minutes into her set, and early on Friday morning, she had the crowd firmly wrapped around her finger. The Belgian’s wildly energetic, taut, techno-heavy turn set the tone for the night, and showed why her remarkable ascension the past few years to the very top of every festival booker’s wish list is no fluke.
Not faring as well on the main stage Thursday night was DJ Snake, whose lackluster dubstep-heavy set broke out every trite live DJ cliché in the book (“Everybody clap your hands now!”). Still, the mood remained jubilant Thursday as the festival kicked off with a massive fireworks display and even an awkward art film starring Serbian actress Miona Marković played on a giant screen for main stage attendees called “EXIT the Pandemic: Dance to Freedom!”
The film was a bizarre break from the generally good sets on opening night, and was hopeful in tone, although it proved to be the opposite of escapist — as the short references the pandemic multiple times and even amusingly features a faux news broadcast that said: “In America, tech companies are already designing the cities of the future, in which people will not need to be in contact with one another.”
As the weekend progressed, the number of concertgoers swelled, with Saturday night seeing the largest number of Exit attendees walk through the gates. Highlights of the weekend included more female talents from the electronic music world, including names such as Russia’s Nina Kravitz (who filled in for Boris Brejcha’s closing set at the Dance Arena early Sunday morning), Italy’s Adiel, Belgrade-based techno duo Monosaccharide, Poland’s VTSS, Italy’s 999999999999 and Palestinian DJ Sama’ Abdulhadi.
More mainstream acts that played over the weekend were mixed, with Meduza’s set proving meandering, while David Guetta’s appearance got the main stage job done, as he can seemingly do little wrong in Serbia with his long history at Exit having played the festival several times before in years past.
Most of the aforementioned DJs who lit up the weekend at Exit played the festival’s “No Sleep” stage, which was smaller than the main stage or the Dance Arena stage, yet it consistently offered some of the best and most exciting music of the entire festival. Featuring fresh and sometimes challenging electronic finds in a more intimate setting flanked by the fortress walls, it offered some respite from the massive, more mainstream crowds at easier-to-find stages.
The “No Sleep” area of Exit is hardly a secret: the stage has proven so popular over the years that Exit has spun-off an entirely new festival called “No Sleep,” which has been operating as stand-alone event since 2018, also featuring more “underground” DJs who play techno and other dance music genres not easily classified.
Beyond “No Sleep,” Exit also last month announced it will launch a new (much smaller) open-air event called “Sunland” on the black sea in Bulgaria to take place this summer. There are also plans for a new Exit-branded nightclub in China (Exit Effinity), and a partnership with Space Miami, which will host an Exit-themed party this year.
The fact that Exit is still an independently owned festival (despite multiple buyout/partnership opportunities over the last two decades) allows it to build — and extend — its brand. And after successfully staging a stellar event that made tens of thousands smile amid a pandemic, and despite multiple roadblocks, it certainly bodes well for Exit next year, and beyond.