Fireworks Explode as the Industry Starts to Implode

Why our cherished fireworks displays may be overthrown by new technology.

With another 4th of July upon us, most Americans are getting ready for a long-weekend filled with parades, barbeques, and fireworks. In fact, for most people, this holiday would not be complete without these patriotic-themed celebrations, capped off by the obligatory ritual of colorful explosions filling the night sky. The tradition of launching fireworks on the 4th dates all the way back to 1783, when they were used in Boston to celebrate the end of the Revolutionary War, and the tradition is still enjoyed by many today. But there are several indications that these shows may start to take on quite a different look in the future.

For the exclusive few in the fireworks industry, this yearly tradition is truly the bread and butter of their businesses. Much like Valentine’s Day is to the chocolate trade, July 4th, or Independence Day, is the holiday that mainly supports the fireworks industry in the United States. Ironically for such a patriotic item, most fireworks are manufactured outside the U.S., and the American based companies make their money primarily through retail distribution, and display production. Since strict federal regulations and exorbitant insurance costs are difficult obstacles to overcome, these current market leaders face little competition from potential newcomers, and it would seem that there is little threat to their future. However, there are three things that are exerting serious pressure on the growth, and potentially the existence, of the fireworks industry, as we know it: the down turn in the economy, environmental concerns, and new technology.

While some fireworks displays are a small part of a larger event, most displays, especially those for July 4th, are free events financed by local governments. With the economy in its present state, it has become difficult for some smaller governments to fund such events. In fact large-scale municipalities like Chicago and North Providence, RI, have already scaled back, or eliminated the programs all together. The choice becomes whether to cut the performances entirely, much to the disappointment of eager townspeople, or to continue the tradition, potentially incurring unnecessary debt in the future. At this point in time the overall sentiment seems to be to keep these types of events in tact, as many government officials feel that bringing the community together for celebrations like Independence Day maintains a strong sense of patriotism, fraternity, and civic pride. But as local government budget crisis’ escalate, expect people to continually look for viable alternatives to fireworks, or begin scrapping the celebrations all together.

The world has also become more conscious of polluting the environment (see why here), and more attention is being directed at anything that has the possibility of negatively affecting the air quality, water quality, and wildlife. Of course, accurately measuring the effects of chemicals, casings, and the resulting debris, from the fireworks that are shot up in the air is not easy, but a potentially harmful chemical called petrochlorate has been found in local water supplies directly following fireworks celebrations. In an effort to preempt community outrage, major manufacturers are constantly striding toward using safer chemicals and launching technology that reduce their overall impact on the environment. For example, Disney has adopted an air-launch system that eliminates the chemicals used to propel fireworks into the air. Since Disney World in Florida is among the top commercial users of fireworks in the U.S., this innovation has allowed their nightly fireworks to continue with lessened negative effects on the surrounding area’s population and environment, and by incurring the substantial development costs, Disney has made this technology more accessible for smaller communities to adopt.

However, some states have enacted bans on fireworks for reasons other than environmental damage. States like Arizona and Colorado have prohibited fireworks for the potential wildfire threat that they present. Unable to cap their celebrations the traditional way, they are seeking other types of amusement, and many have settled on laser light shows and 3D projected light shows. Largely supplying the same grand effect, but with less potential pollution or wildfire concern, these newer technologies will undoubtedly continue to grow in popularity due to their safer nature, and their potential for customization. Not only can these types of shows be synced to specific music, but they can also contain specific imagery as well, and if technology like this can create a comparable experience to traditional fireworks, then it’s possible that many groups in the future will make the switch.

Laser Show for an Independence Day Celebration

A modern laser light show put on by Lightwave International.

Overall, these factors do not bode well for the fireworks industry, and there’s a good chance that the big players in the industry will have to get much more creative to stay in business. While the retail outfits may have their hands full creating eco-friendly versions of their already popular products and more advanced launching systems, the solution for the fireworks display companies is to expand their service offering. Instead of simply providing the actual pyrotechnics, they should look to create a complete experience including event planning, entertainment acts, security, and even post-event clean up. A more full service approach would allow for more revenue opportunities for the business, and translate into cost savings and simplicity in planning for the customer.

I think that we can all agree that it would be a pity to lose such an entertaining, nostalgic tradition that has been a part of American culture since its conception. But it is a very real possibility that these town-wide, city-wide, and country-wide, events may start to dwindle in number and frequency due to economic and environmental concerns, or simply a desire to try something new and different. For those events that are able to continue, the American public may need to embrace the idea that these events will start to change, and ultimately may take shape as a more technologically advanced light show, and less of the standard fireworks display we have grown accustomed to. At the crux of it all, it’s really the experience of togetherness, and the celebration of American culture that people seek at an Independence Day celebration no matter what form the entertainment takes.

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