A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

BROWN M&Ms



I was having a little read the other day when I happened along a term that was completely new to me... a ‘rider’. No it’s not a chap you can plonk on a bike with a helmet. Nor is it a horse passenger. In theatre (and musical performance), a rider is a set of requests or demands that a performer sets as his criteria for a performance. All modern day artists have what’s called a ‘rider’ – and this is basically a list of the things they need in their dressing room at an event.

On occasion, an artist's rider may be seen as somewhat unreasonable or excessive for a given performance. That is because it is often the case that such riders were devised for larger or more complex performances and in situations like these, the stage manager would liaise with the band manager to discuss alternative arrangements.

You may or may not have heard about the present day demands for hot and cold running prawn sammiches, diamond encrusted toilet seats, or even the odd troupe of kitten juggling trapezium artists to endow the backstage quarters of stars like Madonna or Lady gone Ga Ga during their performances. And even at the height of his career, Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth became known for his strange and extravagant  rider demands. When the band were on tour, Lee Roth’s rider was deemed particularly demanding.

Not only did he specify that there must be a bowl of M&M’s in his dressing room, but he also insisted that all the brown ones be removed. Not only that, he had it made clear that if there was even a single brown M&M remaining in the bowl, he would have the right to call off the whole concert without any financial recompense to the organisers.

At the time, this was put forward as the ultimate example of rock star excess – what happens when performers are given everything they want, and nobody dare say ‘no’to them. But in his autobiography, Lee Roth revealed a surprising and ingenious reason for his apparent Diva-ish behaviour.

The objective of this wasn't in fact due to any excesses on the part of the band, but it was simply a method to determine how much attention to detail the crew at a local venue had paid to the requests specified in the rider. Should the bowl be absent, or if any brown M&Ms were present, it would give the band members reason to suspect other, more legitimate, technical and safety issues were also being performed poorly or were outrightly overlooked. Let me explain...

Back in the 1980’s, Van Halen concerts were at the cutting edge of what could be achieved at the time. The band would typically turn up with nine or ten trucks packed out with expensive and complex staging, equipment and lighting. The norm at the time for many other acts, was just two trucks full.

Not only was the set complicated, but it was also extremely heavy. It was very important that the floor in the venue was capable of supporting everything and that it was all positioned and assembled in the correct way because if not, there would be a genuine risk to life if mistakes were made. And the instructions and requirements for achieving all this were contained within a thick contract for the event – the same contract that contained that excessive rider about brown M&M’s.

It turns out that this somewhat unreasonable request was made purely as a result of faulty workmanship at a venue on an earlier tour which nearly cost the life of a member of Van Halen's road crew. Le Roth added, that at one venue where he found brown M&Ms (the Colorado State University – Pueblo), the management's failure to read weight requirements in the rider resulted in the band's equipment sinking through the floor, causing over $80,000 of damage.

So here’s the clever bit. Whenever the band arrived at a new concert venue, they simply checked the bowl of M&M’s in the dressing room for brown ones. If they found any, they would dutifully take it as a direct indication that the contract hadn’t been read properly and assumed that this could be just the tip of the iceberg. Therefore, the appearance of brown M&Ms would prompt them to insist on a full technical check of the venue and more often than not this would highlight other lapses that could threaten either the show, or the safety of both the performers and audience.

I’m sure you get the underlying principle here – it isn’t always necessary to check on every aspect of a job to get a good indication of how well it has been done. Often, taking a very small, well-chosen sample can often tell you all you need to know. We might not all be rock stars, but all of us are in the position of entrusting work to third parties, whether they be tradesmen, contractors, professional advisors, employees or work colleagues. It’s not always easy or practical to check that everything has been done to specification, but perhaps with our own version of the dreaded brown M&Ms, we can get a good indication.

So what form might our brown M&Ms take? Well with written instructions to professional advisors, it could be a ‘deliberate mistake’ in the text. If they draw your attention to it, then they’ve done well and read your instructions in detail. If they don’t, then ask yourself how much have they really read? Or with verbal instructions to tradesmen, contractors or colleagues, it could be insistence on a seemingly inconsequential detail. If that has been complied with, there’s every chance the rest of the instructions will have been followed too.

meanwhile, back in real life, I once heard of a homeowner who used to test out new cleaners by leaving a little cash under the rug. If the cleaner produced the cash he could be sure she was both thorough and honest. If she didn’t, he knew she was lacking in at least one of those attributes. Either way, she didn’t get asked back! See how it works?




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