04 August 2011

Why Van Halen demanded "no brown M&Ms"

I heard the story years ago -
In case you weren’t around during the 80s, the rock supergroup Van Halen had a clause in their concert contracts that stipulated that the band would “be provided with one large bowl of M&M candies, with all brown candies removed.”
- and like everyone else, I assumed it was a whimsical request reflective of celebrity hubris.  It wasn't until yesterday that I read about the reason for the request:
Here’s the thing, though: the band put the “no brown M&Ms” clause in their contracts for a very good reason.

Van Halen was one of the first rock bands to bring truly massive concerts to mid-size cities like Macon, Georgia. The staff that worked at concert arenas in these smallish cities were used to bands coming to town with, at most, three tractor-trailers full of equipment. Van Halen’s equipment took up 9 tractor-trailers. It was a lot of stuff, and the staff at these venues were frequently overwhelmed. And when people are overwhelmed, they make mistakes... mistakes can cause stage lights to fall from the ceiling and kill people… which is exactly what the band was afraid of.

At the heart of any major concert is the contract. Much of the text of these contracts is standard legal boilerplate, but each band may attach specific demands via something called a “rider”. Most of the contracts involving concerts at large venues are jam-packed with riders, most of which involve technical details specific to the band’s stage design. For instance, a rider might say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, spaced evenly, providing nineteen amperes total, on beams suspended from the ceiling of the venue, which shall be able to support a total gross weight of 5,600 pounds each, and be suspended no less than 30 feet, but no more than 37.5 feet, above the stage surface”. Van Halen’s concert contracts would have several hundred such demands, and their contracts ended up (in lead singer David Lee Roth’s words) looking “like a Chinese Yellow Pages”.

The staff at venues in large cities were used to technically-complex shows like Van Halen’s. The band played in venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden or Atlanta’s The Omni without incident. But the band kept noticing errors (sometimes significant errors) in the stage setup in smaller cities. The band needed a way to know that their contract had been read fully. And this is where the “no brown M&Ms” came in. The band put a clause smack dab in the middle of the technical jargon of other riders: “Article 126: There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”. That way, the band could simply enter the arena and look for a bowl of M&Ms in the backstage area. No brown M&Ms? Someone read the contract fully, so there were probably no major mistakes with the equipment. A bowl of M&Ms with the brown candies? No bowl of M&Ms at all? Stop everyone and check every single thing, because someone didn’t bother to read the contract.
I owe David Lee Roth an apology.  Further history and details at jimcofer.

Photo via Chocolate Wiki.


  1. Yes, my ex-husband had an architecture firm, and in the notes of any set of construction documents that he assembled he included (buried deeply) the requirement that the contractor provide the client and the architect with as much beer as they wanted, whenever they wanted it, during the construction phase of the project. If the contractor read the construction notes, that requirement would be pulled out and eliminated. Otherwise it inevitably showed up in the legal proceedings, to the amusement of the judge and the horror of the contractor's legal team.

  2. I just read that in a book called "The Checklist Manifesto" by Atul Gawande. It's an interesting book giving the reasons why surgeons need to no longer be the 'ultimate craftsman' and develop & use checklists just like pilots do.


  3. Classic case of distributed knowledge, ala Friedrich Hayek. Unless you were a professional performer, how would you be able to accurately judge the methods of a professional performer?

    Judging from a distance is dangerous.

    Kudos for your upstanding retraction and apology, though I doubt Van Halen will notice.

  4. Sammy Hagar wasn't in the band at the time and he had nothing to do with this. ROTH was the genius. Hagar rode his coattails.

  5. Reading a contract fully, and complying with all the provisions are not necessarily the same thing. It could well be that the electrical or structural requirements for the concert are not met, and yet the brown M&M requirement might be met.

    They must check the critical things again, regardless of what the M&M colors might indicate

    1. Legally you couldn't question the local union unless there was a glaring and obvious technical error. The lack of brown M&Ms allowed them to claim glaring and obvious technical error and their own crew could go over and chec the local union's work. It was all union rule based, not just nonsense that could be overlooked.

  6. Of course it's just one thing that could go wrong, and not comprehensive, but it's a smart quick test. Some folks put a barely visible five dollar bill in their car's cupholder, as one regular signal if it's gone that someones been digging around in there car.

  7. I too remember hearing about the brown M&Ms. I'm having a hard time figuring out why it feels so good to finally know the rationale behind it. It's minor trivia that I probably would never have thought about again were it not for your article.

  8. I like the idea behind that. I had to deal with a rider one time that stated that the band required a thawed turkey to be put on stage. I was apparently the only person the band had ever had read and actually follow it and they thanked me personally. Though to be honest, most of the venues apparently treat riders as though parts of them are optional, so maybe they do read them but then think that the band is being "nit-picky" about it all..

  9. I'm sure a good lawyer would have argued that the alleged brown m&ms were not brown at all, but a coffee color and billed them for all damages.

  10. "Some folks put a barely visible five dollar bill in their car's cupholder, as one regular signal if it's gone that someones been digging around in there car."

    That and the broken glass from the windshield someone smashed to get at that 5 dollar bill, lol. ;-)

    (I had 2 break-ins for nothing more than cassette tapes in a case that were visible in my car).

  11. Re Sammy Hagar, thanx anon for the correction; I've revised the post.

    Re the cupholder technique, I suspect that's used re parking valets, service dept workers, etc.

  12. I was tipped off to this fact in an episode of This American Life that aired a couple of years ago, The Fine Print:


    John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants gives some nice insight into that rider.

  13. @Rafael

    I'm sure a lawyer could've tried but it wouldn't have been that hard to get a statement from Hershey of their named color which is brown and not coffee colored (which is also brown).

  14. Of course, for sheer amusement, nothing really beats the rider contracts of Iggy and the Stooges:

  15. I loved that episode - #433. The Fine Print.

  16. TL;DR no brown M&M's was placed in the middle of pages of technical jargon in their contract to make sure people read the whole thing

  17. Except that they are called brown M&M's:



    RE: Rafael said... I'm sure a good lawyer would have argued that the alleged brown m&ms were not brown at all, but a coffee color and billed them for all damages.

  18. I am eating a bag of multicolored peanut M&Ms as I read all of this. The outside of the bag offers $100,000 to anyone finding a bag of all brown M&Ms. Wish I had been backstage a few times at a Van Halen set-up. I'd certainly have a bag full by now! LOL.

  19. It's a cool story. I hope it's true.


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