The truth about Van Halen’s M&M Rider – just good operations.

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When it comes to tales of the diva-ish behaviour of rock stars, the rumour that Van Halen had a rider that demanded a bowl of M&Ms without any brown ones is infamous, but is it true?

Could anyone be that much of a prima donna?



According to Dan and Chip Heath’s new book, Decisive, How to make better decisions in life and work, not only was the rumour true, it wasn’t a diva-ish act at all.

Far from it…

“During this same period of touring, rumors circulated wildly about Van Halen’s backstage antics. The band members were notorious partiers, and while there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about a rock band that likes to party, Van Halen seemed committed to a level of decadence that was almost artistic. Roth wrote in his autobiography, “Well, we’ve heard about throwing a television out a window. How about getting enough extension cords… so that the television can remain plugged in all the way down to the ground floor?”

“Sometimes, though, the band’s actions seemed less like playful mayhem and more like egomania. The most egregious rumor about the band was that its contract rider demanded a bowl of M&Ms backstage—with all the brown ones removed. There were tales of Roth walking backstage, spotting a single brown M&M, and freaking out, trashing the dressing room.

“This rumor was true. The brown-free bowl of M&Ms became the perfect, appalling symbol of rock-star diva behavior. Here was a band making absurd demands simply because it could.

“Get ready to reverse your perception.

“The band’s “M&M clause” was written into its contract to serve a very specific purpose. It was called Article 126, and it read as follows: “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” The article was buried in the middle of countless technical specifications.

“When Roth would arrive at a new venue, he’d immediately walk backstage and glance at the M&M bowl. If he saw a brown M&M, he’d demand a line check of the entire production. “Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error,” he said. “They didn’t read the contract… Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show.”

“In other words, David Lee Roth was no diva; he was an operations master. He needed a way to assess quickly whether the stagehands at each venue were paying attention—whether they’d read every word of the contract and taken it seriously. He needed a way, in other words, to snap out of “mental autopilot” and realize that a decision had to be made. In Van Halen’s world, a brown M&M was a tripwire.”

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One response to “The truth about Van Halen’s M&M Rider – just good operations.”

  1. Michael says:

    I’ve always liked the brown M&Ms story and it is a great metaphor for software/business. The whole idea of project signaling – simple metrics that can give you a forewarning of bad things that will likely come to paas — is really powerful. I mused about some possibilities for software signals on my blog a while back,

    I think the ideal would be a simple, binary metric that is extremely easy to evaluate and correlates strongly with something you want to avoid, with enough warning that you can do something about it. The dev ops movement with the continuous delivery focus has really done a great job of identifying some of these signals I think. And of course the whole BI / Business Analytics methods are supposed to be helping achieve this too. Nothing as simple as a bowl of M&Ms… but maybe some day!

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