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The M&M Rider

Van Halen famously* included a clause in their standard contract with concert venues, buried among technical specifications for staging and sound equipment, that the band should be provided with a bowl of M&Ms from which all the brown M&M’s had been removed.

Back in the day this rider – and the band’s overblown reaction when they discovered a brown M&M in the bowl – was cited as a classic example of rock’n’roll primadonnaism, but it turns out to have served a more mundane purpose: as an immediate check on the venue staff’s competence and attention to detail. Here’s a quote from the autobiography of Van Halen’s David Lee Roth via

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.

David Lee Roth

The brown M&M was an immediate visual indicator that the managers on the ground were taking their job seriously (or not). You may shiver at the thought of setting up a gotcha like this for your team, but there may be an equivalent that you can put to good use in order to make sure that the basics are being done well:

  • Is the paperwork stored in the correct folder?
  • Is the house style used correctly?
  • Are meetings starting on time?
  • Is there a glass of water ready for the visiting speaker?
  • Is the logo pixellated?
  • Are invoices reconciled with payments?
  • Do enquiries receive prompt responses?

Find something that matters – something where you can say “If we can’t do X well, there’s no way on earth we’ll be able to achieve our goal,” – and check it regularly. If it’s broken, remind everyone that it’s important and why it’s important. Be clear and specific. Then keep checking it until it stays fixed.

Then do the next thing. This is management.

*If you’ve never heard of this… it was famous.

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