The Genius of Banishing Brown M&Ms

Van Halen’s Secret to a Successful Show

by Colter Reed
Brown M&Ms
by Colter Reed
Brown M&Ms

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.

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, on Twitter, LinkedIn, or Facebook.