Clever Test "No brown M&Ms"



One of my first guitar heroes when I was 10 years old was Eddie Van Halen. Who wouldn’t want to play the guitar as effortlessly as he does?

By 11 years old, I saw this clip of Eddie playing Eruption, below, and spent at least five hours a day tackling the challenge. I’d go on to do a pretty decent cover of this song for my school talent show.

While Eruption and other Van Halen tunes helped me to hone my guitar skills, I learned a lot more than music from Van Halen: how to quickly test a large sample for its attention to detail. I found out that other intelligent fanatics have utilized this trick as their organizations grew.

I took my only music business class at Berklee College of Music with a guy named Jeff Dorenfeld. He was the manager for the band Boston and was tour coordinator for Sammy Hagar (the later singer in Van Halen). One of the only things I remember him talking about was Van Halen’s no brown “M&M” clause in their standard concert contract.

For those who are unfamiliar, a standard concert contract has a rider that spells out a band’s requirements - food, alcohol, technical specifications like how many electrical outlets are needed in the dressing rooms. By the late '70s, bands were caught up in an almost perverse contest to see whose rider could be the most excessive.

Then the media caught wind of Van Halen’s rider.

Van Halen had stipulated, in the munchies section shown below, “WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.” That meant that each venue had to provide a bowl full (if I recall it was with 3lbs) of the chocolate candies with every color except the brown and tan ones.


Why the brown ones? Eddie thought his brother’s snare drum sounded like he was hitting a log. For years fans thought Eddie was talking about his iconic guitar tone which has since been dubbed “brown sound.”

Anyway, while the M&M rider sounds absolutely ridiculous and excessive, it was actually a highly clever maneuver. It was a simple, quick and effective test to tell the band if the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.

Lead singer David Lee Roth explained in detail the reasons in his biography (highlighted here):

Yet, with the media taking it the wrong way, it led some venues to overlook the brown “M&M” rider. Roth went onto describe some of those who didn’t comply:

I came across a similar trick utilized by Peter Kiewit, an intelligent fanatic we highlight in Standing on the Shoulders of Giants. Kiewit would often go travel to inspect his company’s projects and their progress. This was decades before Van Halen. In one instance Peter kept telling one of the managers on a tour that his room didn’t have a hook for his pajamas. After several reminders on this one tour, the manager got frustrated and asked if he should shut down the project to put a nail in his room’s closet. Kiewit just laughed. By the next visit, Peter Kiewit’s room had a hook in the door for his pajamas.

The closet hanger, like Van Halen’s no brown “M&M” clause, was a test to make sure that his manager was capable of handling the project and every detail. The manager was handling a massive project and passed the test.

In contrast to Van Halen’s rider, was the response from Rolling Stones production coordinator, Michael Ahearn. He added a clause to the Rolling Stones’ rider asking for only brown M&Ms. The reason? Ahearn said, “I did it for fun.”

Kayne West’s rider for his Australian tour in 2012 included: imported and recut Versace towels, and any chauffeur who drove him were to wear only 100 percent cotton clothes. “No man-made fibers.” I doubt he ever checked if his chauffeurs wore only 100 percent cotton clothes.

So if you are trying to figure out quickly if someone else is following a large project with fanatical detail, throw in a small clever clause.

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Notes on Peter Kiewit