Rock and M&M… Do you know the Van Halen clause?

There are really three parts to the creative process. First there is inspiration, then there is execution, and finally there is the release.
Eddie Van Halen

This time, from Steering Bird, online advisors in business direction and management, we are going to talk about the rock band Van Halen, their concerts, the M&M’s and a specific clause of their contracts, which has become known as “the Van Halen clause”. We publish this entry in light of the recent death of Eddie Van Halen. Let’s rock.

Van Halen, the rockstars

You can never deny the immense talent, rock credibility and iconic historical contribution that Van Halen did.
Steve Vai

The rock band Van Halen was formed in Pasadena, California, in 1972. It was originally composed by Eddie Van Halen, Alex Van Halen, Mark Stone, Michael Anthony, and David Lee Roth. His 1978 debut album, called Van Halen, managed to sell around 10 million copies and is considered a rock hit. The band was especially recognized by Eddie Van Halen, one of the most influential guitarists in rock history and recently passed away.

They were one of the first musical groups to mount large productions in secondary or tertiary cities. Also, they were among the first groups to outsource part of the concert production process. On these tours, they mounted huge stages, with a great display of light and sound.

Their schedules were very tight and there was very little time between one concert and another. The 1982 tour is iconic. It started in Georgia, Alabama, the United States and ended in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For this reason, the promoter or producer company in the city that hired them had to take care of much of the set-up of the stage.

The contractors had a limited time to carry out the structural assembly of the stage, after which the Van Halen team arrived to set the electrical installation, taking care of the sound and lighting, among other things, as the construction and assembly sequence had to indicate.

If for any reason, you do not know Van Halen, we leave you one of his videos, where you can also observe the scene, so that we can get into context.

The concert contract… and the rider

What usually comes first is the contract.
Ira Gershwin

The contract for a live concert has an annex that includes the technical specifications and special requests that the band requests for the concert to take place. This annex, in the jargon of the industry is called rider.

Tour riders reach mythical levels. Why? Because there is a long tradition of musicians and actors adding absurd demands to their acting contracts, just because they can.

Depending on the tight schedule of the group. Van Halen signed contracts with highly detailed technical riders to carry out the assembly. The riders had a large list of technical requirements, on necessary electrical power, plugs, size of doors to move equipment and a long etc. All this was necessary so that, as we have said, the band’s technical team would later arrive to finish the assembly and install the sound instruments.

For example, Item 148 stated “There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes…”

Van Halen had a major effect on the modern rock music tour, due to his use of the concert tech contract rider. The band pioneered the use of rider to specify a “wish list”. This is a practice throughout the music industry today. However, Van Halen’s rider is famous for the catering section.

No brown M&M’s

I find only freedom in the realms of eccentricity.
David Bowie

Among all the articles – mainly technical – of the Van Halen contract, was article 126, which stated “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation”.

For years, this article was seen as a frivolous and ego-maniacal expression of the rock and roll lifestyle.

Additionally, the rider of the concert, on the food list for the backstage, again requested that there be an M&M bowl, and it was expressly demanded that there should not be any brown.

Now, we must go back to 1980, and the concert performed by the band in Pueblo, Colorado. According to urban legend, singer David Lee Roth came backstage and found brown M&M’s in the bowl. He got so angry that he ended up trashing the backstage area, causing USD 12,000 in damage. This reinforced the fame of eccentric rockers that the members of Van Halen already had.

According to David Lee Roth in his book “Crazy from the Heat” (1997): “I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?” … you know, with the skull in one hand … and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun”.

Then he adds that “It came out in the press that I discovered brown M&M’s and did eighty-five thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the backstage area. Well, who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?”

Actually, the situation was a little different, beyond the wreckage.

Van Halen Rider - No Brown M&M's (Source: The Smoking Gun)

The truth of Van Halen and the M&M’s

Who am I to get in the way of a good rumor?
David Lee Roth

David Lee Roth (1997), recounted what article 126 hid: “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”.

All the promoters, producers and contractors always indicated that they had set up the stage well, following in detail all the technical indications of the contract. The Van Halen schedule didn’t have much slack, so there was no time to check everything. So, the first thing they did was check the M&M bowl.

In this regard, David Lee Roth (1997) points out: “When I was walking backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, check the entire production. Guaranteed to find a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed to run into a problem. Sometimes this issue would threaten to destroy the entire show. Something that could be literally life threatening”.

Thus, if they found any brown M&M, they knew that the promoters, producers and contractors had not read the contract carefully. This could generate critical failures, in the electrical power, in the quality of the sound, in the lighting, in the safety of the group or of the assistants, in the structure to support the weight of the stage and the equipment, etc. In an assembly, chances are high that something could go wrong.

From a statistical and psychological point of view, the assembly and installation of a scenario corresponds to a disjunctive structure, which is associated with risk assessment. This refers to the fact that the entire structure of a complex system will malfunction if one of its components fails. As Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky indicate in the article “Judgment under uncertainty” (Science journal No. 185, 1974): “Even when the likelihood of failure in each component is slight, the probability of an overall failure can be high if many components are involved”. Furthermore, they indicate that, due to the effects of psychological anchors, we tend to “underestimate the probabilities of failure of complex systems”. With this, we want to highlight how critical the stage setting activity is.

The Van Halen clause

What gets measured, gets managed.
Peter Drucker

In short, the concert could have problems. The safety of the group, the workers and the public could not be guaranteed.

The system behind the simple No Brown M&M’s worked. At the Pueblo, Colorado concert, where the promoters did not review the brown M&M‘s request, the stage ended up sinking the floor of the basketball court where it was set, causing USD 80,000 in damage, in addition to the damage done by David Lee Roth in backstage.

As Lee Roth (1997) puts it: “The folks in Pueblo, Colorado, at the university, took the contract rather kinda casual. They had one of these new rubberized bouncy basketball floorings in their arena. They hadn’t read the contract, and weren’t sure, really, about the weight of this production; this thing weighed like the business end of a 747”.

Then he adds, “The staging sank through their floor. They didn’t bother to look at the weight requirements or anything, and this sank through their new flooring and did eighty thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the arena floor. The whole thing had to be replaced”.

Article 126 seemed to be like an eccentric demand for food from a group of rock stars. But it really was a brilliant way to quickly control the assembly quality. A way to confirm that the contractor had read the contract and followed all the assembly instructions. It was like the canary in the coal mine. It was an excellent quality control, simple and quick, to do an initial check.

As brothers Chip and Dan Health indicate in their book “Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work” (2013): “David Lee Roth was no diva; he was an operations master. In Van Halen’s world, a brown M&M was a tripwire”.


One standard is worth a thousand committee meetings.
Dale Dauten

Since then, a seemingly meaningless clause that is included to confirm that the other party has read the contract is often called the Van Halen Clause. This is how what for years was considered an eccentricity of a hard rock band, was transformed into a business case about quality control.

Based on our experience, we can tell you that we have come across some curiosities in contracts, mainly supply in operations and projects. We have seen revisions not removed, comments that should not have been printed or signed, duplicate sentences and even insults. None of them qualify as a Van Halen Clause. The message of this paragraph is that you read the contracts well, before and after signing them.

On the other hand, we have also witnessed small clauses that are quality controls or that are elements that are used in negotiations, once the contracts are opened for modifications.

Finally, we close this article with one of Van Halen’s greatest hits.

Main Image Credits: Rolling Stone Magazine.

We are Steering Bird, online advisers in direction, management and finance. We specialize in business analysis, control and analysis of investment projects, results analysis, processes of budget and forecast, etc.

Contact us if you need help. We invite you to learn about our services and read our articles.

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