The Genius of Banishing Brown M&Ms

Van Halen’s Secret to a Successful Show

Have you heard the one about the rock stars on tour requiring all the brown M&Ms to be removed from the dressing room? I’ve heard that story bandied about for years as an example of how eccentric the rich are, especially celebreties whose rise to fame outpaced their sensibility. Would they really throw a fit if they saw a brown M&M?

It turns out they would, but not because you didn’t cater to their every whim. It was amazingly practical, and I love it.

Brown M&Ms

Photo © 2013 Colter Reed

Van Halen was the biggest show of their day, and they would tour in smaller markets that the bigger names usually didn’t visit. Most shows would arrive with three semis worth of equipment. Van Halen, nine. It would take all day to set up, and they relied heavily on a setup crew provided by the local promoter. The promoter would also have to make sure the venue could handle the electrical demands of the show, provide catering for the crew and band, and make sure that the stage could handle the weight of the equipment.

The technical needs of the show were spelled out in great detail in the concert rider. When Van Halen showed up, their crew didn’t have time to double-check the prep work that had been done by the local crew. If the wiring wasn’t adequate, they could blow a fuse and the show would come to an abrupt halt. If the stage couldn’t support the weight of the equipment, it could collapse, putting lives in danger.

Buried in the middle of lengthy technical requirements (“There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes.”), they included the famous M&M clause:

There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.

It was brilliant. With a quick glance, they could tell how well the promoter had done their job. If there was no bowl of M&Ms, they hadn’t read the whole contract. If there were brown M&Ms in the bowl, they had been sloppy in their preparations. It was time to check the setup. Every time, they found something wrong.

The show might have been delayed, if they found something they could fix. If they found something serious that couldn’t be corrected, the show was cancelled. The bowl of M&Ms served as a canary in the coal mine, warning them of pending danger.

So what’s the takeaway here? Our lives are too complex to monitor every single detail every single day. We need to identify key indicators that give us a snapshot of how we’re doing. This could be our BMI, number of hours billable, client turnover rate, or how many seconds it takes a customer to receive their Double Double.

It will take a lot of thought—and probably some trial and error—to identify the right thing to focus on. Identify the key indicators that need your attention. Fix what needs fixing. If everything looks good, enjoy the show.

Question: Key indicators can be specific to an industry or an individual. How do you make sure you’re on the right track? Share your thoughts in the comments, or on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.

About

Colter writes software and blogs about personal growth and productivity. He lives in Silicon Valley (California) with his wife and children, recently took up golf, and watches mostly British TV shows.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. For more information, see my comments policy.

  • Lani Jackson

    My biggest key indicator, if I’m sitting in the room, is how fast those pages are turning. If they go too fast, someone isn’t really reading. If they go too slowly, something is bogging the reader down. Another key indicator is if someone looks me in the eye when they hand back copy. If they don’t, I *know* there’s trouble in the manuscript somewhere.

    • colterreed

      Interesting. Pure body language.

      • Lani Jackson

        When seeking an opinion where persons fear giving offense, body language is often a lot more trustworthy than words. It tends to be, though isn’t always, unconscious. In those persons where it is not unconscious, theses are the ones who are really self-aware and conscious of others, for better or for worse.

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