You may have heard the story about Van Halen’s banning of brown M&M’s from its dressing room. I chalked it up to the pampered life of rock stars. (Especially, when compared to the more mundane life of a chief compliance officer.)
I just listened to the latest episode of This American Life which revealed that the provision was not about pampering. It was about compliance. Host Ira Glass talked with John Flansburgh (from the band They Might Be Giants) and he explained why the M&M clause was actually an ingenious business strategy. They recounted an except from David Lee Roth’s autobiography, Crazy from the Heat:
Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine eighteen-wheeler trucks, full of gear, where the standard was three trucks, max. And there were many, many technical errors — whether it was the girders couldn’t support the weight, or the flooring would sink in, or the doors weren’t big enough to move the gear through.The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . .” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
Van Halen used the candy as a warning flag for an indication that something may be wrong. I see some lessons to be learned.
Diamond Dave talking about Brown M&Ms.
(via NPR Music’s The Record: The Truth About Van Halen And Those Brown M&Ms by Jacob Ganz