– Dusan Kovacevic
IMPACT INTERNATIONAL: UK/EURO HONORS
Mission Impossible: Kovacevic Kept His Faith
I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” says EXIT founder and CEO Dušan Kovacevic, referring to pulling off the festival in 2021. It was a historic occasion, not just because it was the first major festival in Europe to go ahead at full capacity post-lockdown, but also because it marked the 20th anniversary of an event that began as a student protest against a dictator, during a time when Serbia and the wider region was just beginning to emerge from wars, isolation, and poverty. Kovacevic describes launching the festival “like trying to start a farming business in the Sahara Desert.” He’s used to organizing events under adverse circumstances, particularly as the economy and wages in the Balkans are still 10 times lower in comparison to countries in Western Europe, but the pandemic added a new layer of challenges.
“I felt like I’m dealing not just with the virus, but also with the extreme fear that was and still is way out of proportion,” Kovacevic explains. “I really had to be in a special state of mind to win this fight. And I’m thankful that our health authorities and government heard us and accepted all arguments and saw us as allies of public health in the end.” EXIT went ahead on the second weekend of July without incident. Once the scientific study conducted at the event confirmed that it had not caused a significant outbreak, Kovacevic’s also got the green light for the inaugural edition of Sunland festival in Bulgaria in July, as well as Sea Dance Festival on the beach of Buljarica in Montenegro in August.
What all of this has taught Kovacevic, and what he hopes it will teach the rest of the international live industry, is “that you obviously can’t sit on the sidelines and expect the government to throw crumbs off the table in the form of permits to gather with social distancing measures, do drive-in shows, and similar ‘solutions.’ This EXIT, and the scientific research accompanying it, have proven that with certain restrictions on entry, it is possible to organize a safe event even during a pandemic. Many governments in the world have shown very inconsistent patterns when making rules. For example, how can a gathering at a sporting event or indoor shopping mall be safer than a gathering at another place? It’s not logical! It is necessary for the industry to unite and lobby stronger. And yes, fight as well.”
Kovacevic is grateful for the test events that have taken place across Europe, and that were “very important for us to prove to our authorities that there is a way to organize events safely. Now, EXIT is practically the biggest test event. That is our gift for the entire music industry. We proved that it is possible to arrange a festival for 40,000-plus people without a massive COVID outbreak with certain conditions and restrictions in place. If we are as united as possible, we can do wonders and get things back to normal sooner than anyone thinks – with entry restrictions and safety guidelines depending on the epidemic situation at a particular moment and place. If the industry continues to be relatively silent, I am afraid that the situation will go from bad to worse.”
Most people in the West, not just Europe, only know wars, dictators, and revolutions from history books. It’s different for the population of Europe’s East where communism only got overthrown during the revolutions of the late 1980s and 1990s. Kovacevic experienced it firsthand, which is why he’s now against sitting and waiting “for some outside authority to grant us freedom. We have to fight for it, as it was the case throughout our entire human history.” He kept his teams motivated during the crisis, by reminding them, that “in this part of the world we are used to big crises and if anyone in the world was going to push through this, it had to be us.”
He asked them to “truly believe that EXIT was going to happen,” and told them that “anything was possible if we had a strong belief, even when all the odds were stacked against us. I learned that when we cured my father-in-law of terminal cancer with natural remedies. Faith in recovery was the key. If we strongly believe in it and create intense energy, we can make our own reality, despite what outside circumstances may look like.”
Several times, even months before EXIT’s July dates, it seemed authorities would pull the plug. They had already approved and then cancelled the event in the year prior. His passion for EXIT, which like any business Kovacevic engages in is a tool to drive positive social change, led him to go for an all-or-nothing approach. He had to improvise. When the mayor of Novi Sad, where the festival takes place, said at the end of April that he thought it likely the event could take place, Kovacevic ran with it, as if the event was now official. The euphoria created couldn’t be stifled anymore. Had the government tried to, it would have resulted in a much more unsafe situation, as people would have protested in the streets. “If someone had stopped us when we started to build the festival and already spent millions on infrastructure, plane tickets, etc., it would have meant certain bankruptcy. I tried not to watch any news about coronavirus and not let it keep my energy and optimism down. I wanted to encourage both my colleagues in the festival world, our fans, our team, and myself. I kept my faith strong. That’s what kept me going.”