When everyone else is exchanging midnight kisses and screaming, “Happy New Year,” David Spencer is thinking about the Fourth of July.
“Those are our two big events,” says the vice president of convention services and special events for the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As soon as one closes out, we start planning the other.”
Anybody who has staked out a spot at Riverfront Park to watch this renowned Independence Day celebration knows that it deserves the honorific “spectacular.” The evening starts with performances by some of the area’s top musical artists. The fireworks display, put together by Pyro Shows, synchs perfectly to a live performance by the Nashville Symphony. The event draws more than 150,000 people to downtown Nashville, and has gotten national media attention for being among the best Independence Day shows in the country.
“Taylor Swift performed at one of our shows before her career blew up so big,” Spencer recalls. “Trace Adkins, the Mavericks have played. Josh Turner performed at the first show I worked on, and there have been so many great moments with different artists that I couldn’t pick a favorite.”
It’s not all pretty fireworks and star-studded musical guests, though. Spencer is the point person who makes sure that everything happens on schedule, safely, with everyone involved getting what they need and as few people as possible inconvenienced for any significant amount of time.
Spencer deals with street closures, boat traffic, catering and crowd control. He is the liaison between Pyro Inc. and the Symphony, making sure that they are communicating with each other to get that perfectly choreographed 27 minutes of sound and spectacle.
Sure, he gets some glamour-job bragging rights for working with the Nashville Symphony and coordinating a world-class fireworks display, but he’s also the man in charge of Port-a-Potties.
How he got that job
Wrangling country music stars and explosives was not in the original career plan for this Rhode Island native. In college Spencer thought he’d like to be a high school history teacher, especially if he could also coach the baseball team. But as he went down that path, he realized that teaching interested him less than sports.
“I went to Miami for graduate school in sports entertainment and volunteered for anything sports-related, including golf and tennis tournaments, just to get a foot in the door,” he recalls. “Then I got an internship with the Florida Marlins.”
That was the foot in the door he was looking for. One of his contacts from the internship helped him get a job in ticketing at the Miami Arena. That led to another opportunity at the Nashville Arena (now Bridgestone Arena), where he was eventually put in charge of event services. In 2004, he moved into his current position with the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Each year I’ve been more and more involved in getting the show together,” he says. “Coming from the arena business, I had worked with indoor pyrotechnics, so I was familiar with some of the fire code. But this show is an outdoor event on a grander scale, so it was interesting to see those behind the scene pieces to it that I had never experienced before.”
Despite months of planning, Spencer can never count on the weather to cooperate.
“Last year was the wettest Fourth of July in the history of the city. People were working in the rain to set up, while wondering if the event would even happen. But it would take a lot for us not to do the show,” he says. “We have contingency plans and we’ll make audibles up to the last minute. Last year the Symphony couldn’t perform live due to the rainy weather, but we do put their rehearsal on a CD and so we were able to run it with the fireworks.”
The year before was one of the hottest summers in city history, so Spencer brought in misting stations and wet towels to cool down the crew unloading everything for the show.
No fireworks display has been canceled yet, and each year the show just gets bigger and more elaborate.
“The most fun part for me is when the fireworks finally go off,” Spencer says. “There’s still a lot to do — three or four days of load-out to oversee — but that’s the pivotal moment of the night.”
Oh, not that he gets to sit back and watch the display.
“There’s no moment to relax,” he says. “It’s just a quick look and then back to work.”
Still he does get to take in the reaction of the crowd, which is getting bigger every year.
“We’ll have people start showing up at 7 in the morning to pick out their spot on the grass or on the street. Some of them have been coming downtown for the fireworks for 15 years.
“I love it all,” he says. “Even the Port-a-Potties. They’re important — people need them.”