The tragic death of a 22-year-old man from London understandably dampened Exit Festival organisers’ enthusiasm for the event’s 10th birthday, but the near 50,000-capacity crowd at the Petrovaradin Fortress seemed to sense they were witnessing a remarkable event reach a remarkable landmark.
“The accident didn’t actually happen on the festival site, but it did happen to someone who had come to Serbia to be at Exit. That’s made us all very sad,” said Exit’s Konstantin Polzovic, the day after Anthony Fisk died.
In the early hours of July 10, Fisk fell from a fortress wall near the Novi Sad festival site, which occupies part of the famous and historic 17th-Century ruins on the bank of The Danube. He died while hospitalized a few hours later.
Last year a tragic accident on the Exit campsite left one fan dead and injured four others when part of a tree fell on two tents.
This year’s anniversary event attracted plenty of news and music coverage from national TV stations PTC1 and PTC 2.
The reason for what sometimes appeared like a national celebration is that a 100-day event started by young student friends, who were basically giving a two-fingered farewell to former President Slobodan Miloševic, has become one of Europe’s most popular festivals.
“We have learned lessons from mistakes and big lessons from big mistakes,” said Exit co-founder Ivan Milivojev, reflecting on the 10-year learning curve that has already seen the event pick up Virtual Festivals’ award for best European festival.
Exit has retained its political edge. It has campaigned against the ridiculously complicated and highly expensive exit visa application procedures that have made it virtually impossible for young Serbs to visit the rest of Europe. It’s also managed to tackle that problem by bringing the rest of Europe to Serbia with impressive lineups of international bands.
The Exit crowd is also multinational and it’s not unusual for at least 20 percent of the 50,000 or so tickets to be sold in the U.K.
“We have a balance between politics, social issues and music,” Bojan Boškoviÿ – another festival co-founder and now its general manager – told BBC News.
“Long meetings with unpleasant people” was how he described the early days of Exit at last year’s inaugural Virtual Festivals conference.
He was on a panel of festival organisers discussing difficulties faced when starting their events. The response bought a knowing chuckle from the audience and his fellow panelists, although many must have wondered if – in the last days of Miloševic’s oppressive regime – they themselves would have had the guts to start such an event.
Exit has helped Serbia repair the bad-boy image Miloševic and his henchmen earned the country during the Balkan conflict, helping steer the country away from the federal policies that led to the disappearance of political opponents and the invasion and genocide of its near neighbours.
The festival has put Serbia firmly on the cultural map for young Europeans.
“It gives you faith that music can be a symbol for change,” Manic Street Preachers bassist Nicky Wire told BBC News. His band was one of the international acts on this year’s bill.
“It’s become a real social force that is a symbol of togetherness and cultural diversity and enables us to promote social campaigns that are important for Serbian and Balkan youth,” Milivojev told Pollstar after picking up the Virtual European Festival Award in 2007. “We aim to bring people together from the ex-Yugoslavia region and beyond in order to promote the interaction of different cultures, traditions and beliefs through music and social activities.”
The other acts supporting the cause and helping Serbia integrate itself into a wider Europe July 9-12 included The Prodigy, Moby, Madness, Lily Allen, Arctic Monkeys, Korn and Kraftwerk.