‘Once Financials Guide The Festival, You Can’t Nurture Its Spirit & Soul’: Q’s With EXIT’s Dušan Kovačević

EXIT festival is one of Europe’s mainstays, and as such more able to deal with crises than lesser-known events. Still, price increases across the board are an issue for the team around founder and CEO Dušan Kovačević, who is determined to remain independent. In this interview, he tells us why.

Dusan Kovacevic

Pollstar: What your general assessment of the live entertainment market in Serbia in particular, and the wider region in general?
Dušan Kovačević: EXIT is, let’s say, an extraordinary event not just for Serbia, but most of Eastern Europe. We had one of the most successful years in 2023. In terms of ticket sales, it our second-best year. In terms of revenues, it was the best year so far. And in terms of sponsorships, it was a record year, as well. So, if you look at it like that, it’s definitely a return to pre-pandemic levels.

When we speak about the Serbian market in general, where ticket sales dropped post-COVID across all events, it hasn’t yet fully recovered. But compared to other markets it’s doing better.

Are the price increases across the board an issue?
That’s the biggest issue. Last year, while our income was really strong, due to the increase in costs, we were dealing with a lot of challenges. We were facing around a million Euros more costs in 2022 than the year before. This year, the increase was not as huge, but it was still substantial. While we managed to keep our income strong, our overall results are dependent on keeping costs down, which is extremely hard right now.

Video Interview With EXIT Festival Founder & CEO Dušan Kovačević: ‘What Happened Exceeded My Wildest Expectations’

Do you have room to increase ticket prices?
It’s really hard for us to increase ticket prices. Firstly, we don’t want to overprice, especially in the local market, because people can’t afford the price levels you see in Western markets. We did increase our prices slightly [year-on-year], but it’s very hard to do locally.

Is the supply chain back up and running?
Most of the suppliers are back in business, but they are facing the increased cost of hiring people, which they pass on to us. It’s one of the key reason for rising costs, aside from fuel and energy prices, etc. Basically, the people that are still in business are asking for a lot more money.

We had a situation with one hotel in Novi Sad we’ve been working with for the past 20 years. This year, they wanted to charge us double price of last year, so we refused to work with them. We’re now working with hotels in Belgrade, which isn’t far away.

How did you keep yourself and your team motivated during the past years?
My personal philosophy is to always stay focussed on the good things, in this case, on the vision that we want to achieve. EXIT is too big to fail, it is such a strong brand, people are so passionate about EXIT, they’re not working for EXIT, they are living EXIT. This makes all the difference. It helps to stay focused, and if you really believe in an optimistic scenario, that’s when you’ll manifest the optimistic scenario.

01 Exit
EXIT is the flagship event of EXIT group, one of the biggest independent festival groups in the world.

What’s next for the EXIT group of events?
Last year, we had 26 events in 11 countries. Some are very big, some are smaller, but it still makes EXIT one of the biggest independent festival groups in the world. And for us, it’s very important to stay independent. That’s the first thing: we are not planning to sell out to any investment funds or anyone else. It is my personal belief, that staying independent will be the key in maintaining the edge of our brand for the future. Once financial sheets are the ultimate guide of the festival, you can’t really control and nurture the spirit and the soul of the festival.

By staying independent, I believe that we can not just realize the festival, but also expand what we feel is a real movement that we’ve created with our fans and with all of our friends. This is something that we’ll definitely be focussing on the years to come. We are planning an expansion to South America, Argentina, to be specific. And we’ll continue to find capable partners we can expand our portfolio of festivals across the globe. That is our plan.

I’m assuming, all events are going to continue to have their own name and identity, and not be called EXIT?
Yeah, we’re not Coca-Cola. It’s like Roskilde, or Glastonbury. Can you imagine Glastonbury Japan? No. EXIT is the source of strength for our group, and we organize different events that may be powered by EXIT. But for us it’s very important that every local event is tailor made for that location. We had this situation with Sea Dance in Montenegro, [which forced us to] move, but only temporarily. We are planning to return because Sea Dance belongs to Montenegro. It is very important to create new brands, which the local people accept as their own.

It’s easy to forget sometimes, especially when numbers and financials seems to rule all.
Yeah, but the festival business can’t become like the f&b business: how much drinks did you sell, and what is the profit? Audiences want to feel this magic, whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t matter, but it is something that is not describable, untouchable, but it attracts people.

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