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

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?

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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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13 responses 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!

    • Krackdaddykane says:

      No, it was not to get a break. If you show up and you need 400 amps USL and it’s not there the show can’t happen because the technical requirements aren’t in place. If there is no 3 phase power for your chain motors how are you going fly your truss? If the venue hasn’t provided the infrastructure it has agreed to then the show can’t happen. By burying the mm’sv clause in all the technical details you can quickly asses whether you are walking into a shit show or not.

  2. Mike Colton says:

    These guys had to do stuff like this in hopes that a breach in contract would happen. Most of the bands had pretty horrible contracts with the record labels. Often doing show after show with little to no breaks along the tours. This was they got some rest some of the time and still were paid. There were a few bands of that area that had some great clauses in their contracts. I’m sure some still exist for some of them. I had forgotten about the M&M clause.

  3. Jack says:

    Very cool. But, remember: this was during the era when there were light and dark brown M&Ms. They chose the color that would make people remove twice the number of M&Ms piece by piece.

  4. Alexander says:

    Fascinating story… I always thought it was rock star diva behavior, but it was actually quite a brilliant way of enforcing a safety check. My only question is, did he ever actually force a forfeiture of the show with full compensation, because of a failure to adhere to that clause?

    • Krackdaddykane says:

      Absolutely, but not because of the mm’s really. If the venue failed to provide 400 amps of power or failed at providing the technical aspects required for the show then the show isn’t technically feasible. that clause ensures you don’t take a loss because of the venues fuck up. They either do the show or not they will not sacrifice their artistic integrity because you didn’t hold up your end of the bargin.

  5. I love M&M’s, they are delicious. i could eat them for hours! this was an interesting read that i can annoy my friends with fun M&M facts. cheers.

  6. […] Van Halen’s “no brown M&Ms” clause was to check that venues had adhered to the safety standards in the contract. If there were brown M&Ms, it was a tell tale sign they had not.. Ref: […]

  7. […] “David Lee Roth was no diva; he was an operations master.” The bowl of M&Ms was the canary in the mine: when a venue wasn’t paying attention to the […]

  8. […] The truth about Van Halen’s M&M Rider – just good operations. – Business of So… […]

  9. […] Since their contract entitled them to receive payment in full for these violations, they had a little fun, and trashed the dressing room before leaving allowing the cost of the damages to be deducted from their earnings, and simultaneously earning them a reputation as difficult. As word spread about the M&Ms, they changed that detail to something even more outlandish, and so on. (Read about Van Halen’s contract here.) […]