“There will be no brown M&M’s found in the backstage area or the promoter will forfeit the entire show at full pay.”
This famous clause, known as article 126 in rock band Van Halen’s concert contracts, has widely been touted as simple millionaire rock star ego and excess. In an interview, lead singer David Lee Roth explains that in reality there was a very legitimate reason for this clause.
Van Halen was the first band to bring 850 par lamp lights (think huge stadium lights) to concerts around the country. As a result, in smaller, older venues the girders might not support the weight, the floor may sink in, and the doors may be too small to move this heavy, highly technical equipment through. Set up and break down time became lengthy, taking 8-10 hours more than budgeted.
As a result of the crew being over budget and behind schedule, things were rushed, corners cut, and people often lost focus on important details. (Is this starting to sound a little like your workplace?) Additionally, concert promoters frequently didn’t read the contract rider very carefully and Van Halen would have structural and physical issues with the stage lighting and props. This posed a potentially life threatening risk to Van Halen and their audiences.
What was his point with the M&M’s?
If Roth went backstage and saw the bowl was missing from the backstage catering table or that there were brown M&M’s in the bowl, Roth knew the promoter did not read the technical portion of the contract rider carefully enough. Although it was food, he listed this particular demand among the technical portion of the contract as a test.
This small test indicated that other things were most likely missed as well. (How you do anything is how you do everything.) If the M&M’s were wrong, more important aspects of the performance such as lighting, staging, security, and ticketing also may have been bungled by an inattentive promoter and his staff.
Van Halen stuck to this policy, once cancelling a show in Colorado because the promoter didn’t read the weight requirements and the stage would have sunk through the arena floor. (It is interesting to note that this has become a standard practice among acts in the entertainment industry.)
How does this relate to your business or team?
Every customer, new hire, and prospective employee has a similar test whether they realize it or not. They are more often looking to see what is wrong with your company than what is right, and if a little thing is wrong, it is deemed symptomatic of an overall problem.
For a customer example, I recently booked a flight to Florida for a speaking engagement and I intentionally avoided American Airlines. (The same flight on American would have been significantly cheaper financially yet potentially far more personally expensive.) American Airlines made international news recently when it had to ground 48 planes because the seats came loose on three of their U.S. flights.
If I can’t trust you to make sure the seats are secure, how can I trust that you’ve checked the engine, landing gear, oxygen, lights, or passenger security and baggage?
The genius of this brown M&M’s clause is that Roth was fiercely protective of his brand’s good name. He understood that because Van Halen was the name on the show bill, they were ultimately responsible whether the concert went well or went poorly. It is a great lesson in accountability for business leaders and not being afraid to walk away from a dicey business arrangement.
I believe how you do anything is how you do everything. Attention to detail has a direct impact on the bottom line. What’s your brown M&M’s test, so to speak? What is your customer’s?
My two tests
When I was a college coach, my little test was how a prospect treated his mother during a home visit. I would observe how much respect he showed her and how well he followed her instructions. Sometimes before I ever even asked a question, I would rule certain kids out. If he was not showing respect for his own mother or following her directions, he won’t be respectful and coachable with his professors, teammates and coaches.
In my consulting business now, I know if a prospective client contacts me and their initial inquiry is based purely on price I can say with a fair amount of certainty that their primary driver is not finding a solution and making improvements to their business or themselves. These two tests are great early warning systems before you commit to working with someone. Little things can show you how to handle big things.
The most famous test
Henry Ford made it a practice to take prospective employees out to lunch and if they reached for the salt before tasting their food, he declined to hire them. Why? Ford wanted people to test their assumption instead of blindly falling into habit.
Please share with me any similar tests you’ve found useful in your job function, recruiting or hiring process, personal (think locked door test from the movie Bronx Tale) and professional relationships.