This week, the special effects company Strictly FX will meet with fire department officials in New Orleans, where they'll present a massive workbook full of licenses, insurance forms, product information and checklists. It's part of the process for big-time pyrotechnicians; Strictly FX is doing the special effects for Beyoncé's halftime performance with Destiny's Child at the Super Bowl.
At most major performance venues, the process has become routine. A handful of big-tour effects companies have developed close relationships with local authorities and promoters in recent years, and they know which fireworks and flamethrowers are safe for which venues and the specific do's and don'ts in each city. But in the aftermath of the Brazil nightclub fire that killed at least 235 people on Sunday, special effects technicians are bracing for another round of heightened scrutiny. Like the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island in 2003, when 100 people died at a show by the band Great White, accidents caused by the unauthorized use of pyrotechnics put a bigger burden on industry professionals, they say.
The state of Rhode Island was known to have a very comprehensive law about effects and fire safety, notes Strictly FX co-founder Ted Maccabee, whose partner, Mark Grega, began his career designing stage shows for Deep Purple and Pink Floyd in the Eighties. "But nobody ever bothered to call an authority. Had it been vetted, there's no way that would've ever happened."
That seems to have been the case in Brazil, where the crew for the country band Gurizada Fandanguiera reportedly used cheap outdoor flairs in an indoor venue, igniting soundproofing foam in the ceiling. The club had only one exit and no sprinkler system.
"Every time there's an accident, it's usually from a non-licensed pyrotechnician," says Dave Greene, head of Stage and Effects Engineering in Albuquerque, which worked with the Scorpions, Mötley Crüe and Nickelback in 2012. "This is what's causing our business so much turmoil."
Stage and Effects was founded in 1998 based on a concept by "Pyro" Pete Cappadocia, who has worked with Kiss, AC/DC and other bands credited with helping popularize the massive special effects shows that have become so prevalent in the industry.
Maccabee says he saw a turning point when the boy bands of the late Nineties – 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys – began incorporating elaborate pyro displays into their arena shows. Such effects no longer belonged exclusively to hard rock acts like Metallica.
"Now it goes without saying, any meeting you have with creative people, they want to know what's new and cool – lasers, pyro, flames, confetti."
In an industry where live touring has become ever more important as a source of revenue while record sales disappear, bands want to create as much spectacle as possible, says Greene. "Nickelback's 2010 show was incredible – too much stuff. It was like, OK, whatever you want, Chad [Kroeger], sure."
After the Great White fire, the concert industry cracked down hard. "Back in the day, insurance was very inexpensive," says Maccabee. "I believe our first policy was a $1 million policy, and I'm pretty sure it cost us $1,500 for the whole year. It's massive now." Today, if a production company checks the box marked "pyro," "it's another $25,000-plus," he says.
As a result, many small-time shops have been forced out of the effects business. After the Station incident, "we started getting all these phone calls to buy their equipment," recalls Maccabee, who says the safest products are typically made in North America. "I'd say your concerts these days, especially in the U.S., are incredibly safe.
"Part of the thing for us, without blowing own horn, we're kind of like magicians. We make things look a little more dangerous than they really are."