One of the quintessential rock star stories is of Van Halen’s concert rider. If you’re not familiar with the concept of a rider, when artists book a show, the rider is the contract they sign with the venue. The contract can cover anything, from technical specifications to green room to what kind of food is available.
Van Halen became infamous for one particular stipulation: that in their green room, at every show, was a bowl of M&Ms with all the brown M&Ms removed.
This was back before the internet, so you couldn’t just check snopes to learn whether this was true. The story went old-school viral, passed orally from people who worked the stages and had to remove those brown M&Ms to their friends and onward and onward. It quickly assumed the character of an urban legend. But people believed it because it was just so quintessentially rock star. After all, the brown M&Ms don’t taste any different from the others. There’s no practical reason to do it. They must just have been divas.
It wasn’t until singer David Lee Roth released his autobiography that he revealed the truth behind the myth: the brown M&M thing was, in fact, 100% true. They had put that clause into their rider in 1982. Why?
Because Van Halen was the first rock band to take their big, stadium tour experience to what the music industry called third-tier venues. These were places off the beaten path. And the venues that hosted them had never had a band like Van Halen, with its semi-trailers full of lights, staging and production.
Which was awesome for the town, but incredibly dangerous for the venue and for Van Halen. If anything went wrong, the staging could sink into the ground. Fires could break out. Lights could fall. People could literally die.
And the rider for this whole giant production was huge, packed with technical specifications. Roth said it looked like the Yellow Pages (if you remember those). For the show to go on as it was meant to, and for everyone from the band to the crowd to the production crew to be safe, the band needed assurance the rider had been followed to a T.
The brown M&M clause was their solution.
It was buried in the middle of the rider, in article 148. So Roth and the guys could walk into the venue and with one look at that bowl of M&Ms, know whether or not the venue had actually read their rider. Brown M&Ms meant the show was a no-go – if they missed that harmless detail, there was no telling how many much more important things they’d missed.
The brown M&Ms weren’t just brown M&Ms. They seemed silly to anyone who didn’t know the story, but in reality they were a marker of extreme professionalism. Van Halen wanted to create an unforgettable musical experience for all their fans. But they also wanted their fans – and the crew who made their show possible – to get home safely. The brown M&Ms were a small sign of a big boundary Van Halen drew in their career. What they were really saying was, “In order for us to be who we want to be, in order for us to give you the experience you’re paying for, this is what has to happen.”
How many of us are that bold in our work?
How many of us know ourselves well enough to be able to tell others what we will and won’t put up with? How many of us draw healthy boundaries in our relationships, in our jobs, in our callings? Do we know what our brown M&Ms are?
Let’s talk about healthy boundaries.