That got me to thinking about a wonderful story of how one of rock's legendary bands ensured that their shows were set up properly - and safely. Van Halen's contracts would spell out any and everything that had to occur before they would go on stage. Not surprisingly, since these contracts covered everything but the kitchen sink, it would be nearly impossible to make sure all the i's and lower-case j's were dotted. So they came up with a smart way to make sure everything was followed to a tee.
In their contracts, they buried a rider in that said that the band would be provided with a jar of M&M's with all the brown ones removed. The thinking was that if the contract were read thoroughly, the M&M's would be provided sans the brown ones. If that was done properly, so, likely, would everything else. So rather than checking to see if everything was taken care of, they simply looked for the jar of M&M's. If there were brown ones inside, they'd have everything checked top-to-bottom
When you think about it, that's a nearly costless way to check for quality control. So much for the dumb musician stereotype.
Is this a true story? Was the brown M&M rider a quality control instrument? David Lee Roth says so in the video below.
A Cafe Hayek reader who has experience in the business gives a different take on part of Dave's story. Dave claims that the Van Halen stage ruined a new basketball floor on a day that brown M&M's were discovered backstage. The reader, Bill, writes to CH's Russ Roberts:
Roth is correct that the floor suffered major damage from the weight of the stage, but it wasn’t due to Barry Fey not reading, or understanding the rider. Barry was used to dealing with Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, so he knew a bit about massive theatrical rock productions. If I remember correctly, Fey also provided the stage, and it is essentially four-feet-high scaffolding with a plywood deck built on top as a stage floor. I also don’t remember if the stage legs were set on 18-inch plywood pads, or if it was just the steel pads of the scaffolding strait to the floor. When we build on dirt, we use the plywood pads, but I didn’t work the Van Halen concert. Either way, the damage was caused by no one realizing that weight needed to be more uniformly spread over the rubber floor. It is possible that the gym floor would have been damaged no matter how much they spread the weight of the stage. Van Halen has been claiming for years that the brown M&M clause was simply to make sure the rider was being read, but (as George pointed out in the comments) the fact that it never changed discredits that assertion. My belief has always been that it was there because they were young rock-and-rollers enjoying wretched excess. I have no problem with that (if they pay for the damage they cause), but his assertion that the floor was damaged because Barry Fey didn’t read, or didn’t comply with the technical aspects of their rider, is simply not believable.
I don’t know how production riders were assembled back then, but these days, they are usually separated into chapters, and the hospitality part, which covers the dressing room details (brown M&Ms, what kind of food, spirits, etc, that the Artist prefers) would be a separate chapter from the technical aspects. Also, because of the physical limitations of the Pueblo venue, I can state with near-certainty that Feyline and Van Halen’s tour manager exchanged multiple phone calls negotiating what Van Halen would be willing to do without, in order to accommodate those limitations, which further discredits the notion that Barry Fey was unaware of the rider’s technical requests.
The Pueblo show was the first time I'd heard about the brown M&Ms. There are different stories about it, but one I was told is that the band wanted to make sure its contract rider, which detailed every little thing from trash bags to what kind of foods would be served to
the roadies and at what time; virtually nothing was left to chance. So, someone suggested they put in "no brown M&Ms" as a gotcha; if there were brown M&Ms, then whoever was supposed to read the rider didn't and other important details, like the tube of K-Y Jelly, might have been overlooked.
In their Pueblo dressing room, the band found brown M&Ms and the boys, who had proven that they didn't need much of an excuse to damage hotel rooms and the like, tore up the college's dressing room. Tore it up so badly that the University banned not only Van Halen, but all rock concerts at the school.
Just because I enjoyed being a smart ass, I guess, four years later when I booked Van Halen to headline The US Festival (more on that in another chapter), I bought a big, silver chalice, had it filled with ONLY brown M&Ms, walked into Van Halen's dressing room and put it down on the table. The guys--Eddie and Alex Van Halen and David Lee Roth--laughed their asses off.
The brown M&M story is a great story, and not just about the excesses of rock and roll acts. If it's as Dave says, then it's an example of a low-cost way to ensure contracts are read and followed.
But some of the commenters to Russ's post aren't fully convinced. One of the commenters notes that once word about the brown M&M rider got out, its usefulness as a quality control signal would become limited. But just looking at Barry Fey's excerpt, there were other seemingly-trivial riders (12 Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, 12 Dannon yogurts on ice, etc.) and others the band could randomly choose to inspect to ensure the contract was indeed followed. One day it was brown M&M's. Another day it was the peanut butter cups. Another day, the yogurt - on ice - gets inspected. If the band randomized inspecting various riders, the brown M&M rider would be an effective quality control signal for years on end.
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