The history of music is full of outlandish tales of varying degrees of truth. Maybe you’ve heard this one.
Back in the 1980s, the rock band Van Halen had a long list of demands in its contract rider—endless picky notes about the stage setup, the lighting and all kinds of technical details, along with various food mandates. The wildest request by far was a line item requesting a bowl of M&M’s, with “absolutely no brown ones.”
You can find versions of this tale going back to May 1980, following a concert by the band at the Milwaukee Arena in Wisconsin. “In catering to the taste of his stars,” the Racine Journal Times reported, “the stage manager of Landmark Productions had to pluck all the brown ones out of six bags of the little goodies. He can now attest that a typical bag contains more brown than any other color.”
More coverage of Van Halen’s M&M contract rider followed in the next few months, with the news item serving as a proxy for broader griping about the excesses of rock music and modern celebrities. By September, the M&M’s seemed to be nearly as famous as the band itself. That month, the candy came up in a Rolling Stone interview and was the subject of an entire story in the El Paso Times. According to a widespread rumor, the Times reported, Van Halen trashed a dining room because the caterers hadn’t removed brown M&M’s.
While much of the M&M’s lore remains unverified, the contract rider definitely existed. Just check page nine of this scan of the original document.
In the late 1990s, though, the story shifted as additional context emerged. David Lee Roth, the band’s lead singer in those early years, published a 1997 autobiography titled Crazy From the Heat, in which he claimed the bowl of curated candy had an entirely functional purpose: It was a quick way to see if the venue had actually read the whole contract, line by line.
Van Halen was the first band to take huge productions into tertiary, third-level markets. We’d pull up with nine 18-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.
… So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say, “Article 148: There will be 15 amperage voltage sockets at 20-foot spaces, evenly, providing 19 amperes … ” This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was, “There will be no brown M&M’s in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.”
So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl … well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you’re going to arrive at a technical error. They didn’t read the contract. Guaranteed you’d run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
After Roth’s clarification, the M&M test took on a new resonance for those in the know. It shifted from a sign of imperiousness to one of ingenuity and clear-headedness. Over the years, in fact, it has become a favorite anecdote of self-help (and self-help adjacent) books, cited in the likes of Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, and The Winning Mindset: What Sport Can Teach Us About Great Leadership.
Both interpretations of the request are intriguing, even outlandish, in their own ways. You can see why “remove all the brown M&M’s” has become the best-known example of demands pop stars put in their riders. It’s likely, in fact, that for many casual music fans, the legend of those candies has served as their introduction to the very existence of riders. It even gets special attention on the Smoking Gun website’s repository of band contract riders, which is probably the largest collection of such documents.
I began this post thinking I’d do an overview of food-related concert riders, with Van Halen as an entry point. But the more I dug into the brown M&M’s story, the more questions I had about Roth’s “real” explanation for the line item.
The Curious Case of the Brown M&M’s has already been revised once in the public narrative, but it’s time for another re-evaluation.
Here’s the earliest article I could find that mentioned pop stars’ contract riders:
Published on June 22, 1974, this Calgary Herald story argues that bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are out-of-control jerks, as evidenced by their contract riders. “Neil Young always wants a bottle of Baby Duck wine, perfectly cooled in a bucket,” music promoter Frank Middleton grumbled to the newspaper. Young also demanded steak, a pen and music sheet paper; the band further stipulated that its four members needed two separate limousines to pick them up from the airport.
Within two years, this sort of story became a small but growing trend in music journalism. The Tampa Tribune ran a multipage article about it in 1975, noting that the Eagles demanded two cases of Heineken beer, three cases of Budweiser, and a hot buffet of either Chinese or Italian food. Alice Cooper wanted three cases each of Budweiser and Michelob, one gallon each of apple juice and orange juice, and assorted fruit. In 1976, the Associated Press was on the case (peanut butter for Aerosmith, lime Gatorade for Peter Frampton), as was the Bloomington, Illinois, Pantagraph, which ran a full-page analysis of Joni Mitchell’s contract rider: among other requests, two limos, two bottles of Blue Nun wine, four cases each of 7Up and Coca-Cola, cheeses and sandwiches, and hot hors d’oeuvres.
The reason for this growing attention to the nuances of entertainment contracts is relatively easy to understand. Pop music was blowing up, with ever-larger crowds and record sales as baby boomers entered adulthood, their cultural clout increasing alongside their personal budgets. Rock music’s stadium era had begun in 1965, when the Beatles played at Shea Stadium in New York City, and by the late 1970s, more and more bands were touring extensively in major venues. When more than 5,000 people attended an Aerosmith concert in Iowa in the mid-1970s, the promoter hailed it as part of a nationwide trend of big acts drawing big crowds.
Audience growth went hand in hand with a meteoric rise in music journalism, pop-culture attention and obsessive fandom. You can trace a direct line from Beatlemania to the present-day BTS Army and other massive, organized and ever-aware groups of fans loyal to a particular artist.
Much has been written of late about the parasocial relationships people sometimes build with celebrities (in short, feeling like you genuinely know a famous person based only on the things you’ve read about them), a phenomenon that has soared during the era of social media and endless available information. If you want to know Harry Styles’ or Lizzo’s favorite foods, just ask Siri, and it will tell you right away.
But this dynamic also existed in the world of pop music in the 1960s and ’70s. Fans published Beatles magazines and endless coverage of the Fab Four in every form of media. In a 1964 profile of the band, Life magazine noted that ever since its members had mentioned they liked jelly babies, fans had been throwing the soft candies onstage during concerts. “Have you ever tried walking on jelly babies?” Paul McCartney asked the reporter. “They’re one of the most adhesive substances known to man. Sometimes kids think I’m trying out new little dance steps when I’m really trying to get my foot up off the floor.”
If you’re interested in the personal details of a rock star’s life, a contract rider is a gold mine. A press release or ghostwritten autobiography can feel like it’s crafted to present a certain image, but a contract rider feels, at first glance, more mundane and personal, a series of details not meant to be publicized. Here, in this boring legal document, is the truth.
Some bands hate it when their rider gets out. In 2015, Jack White, lead singer of the band the White Stripes, became incensed when a University of Oklahoma student newspaper published his guacamole preferences. As the Current reported at the time:
Last winter, student journalists at the University of Oklahoma couldn’t have guessed they were breaking a story that media around the world would find absolutely delicious—even though it was a story about guacamole. Specifically, the story was about the detailed (“we want it chunky”) guacamole recipe that Jack White and his crew required backstage for a February show on campus, according to the tour rider that the Oklahoma Daily published with sardonic commentary.
During the show, White commented angrily about the student paper’s decision to publish the rider, saying, “Just because you can type it on your computer doesn’t make it right.” (The contract was available to the paper under Oklahoma state law, since the university is a public entity.)
Other brands embrace the fact that riders often go public, especially in the internet era. The Foo Fighters know that their contract riders will end up on the Smoking Gun, so they have some fun with the documents, including demands that, in a tongue-in-cheek way, fit the stereotype of spoiled rock stars. The band’s 2011 contract rider, for example, includes an extended section with frontman Dave Grohl’s thoughts on ice.
In the 1970s, though, when contract riders were first attracting attention in music journalism and everyday newspapers, musicians didn’t seem to actually be trying to send a message to the public. The contract riders were, at that point, intended to stay private—which brings us back to Van Halen.
The band formed in the early 1970s and released its debut album to great critical success in 1978. As Roth has noted, during this decade of music industry growth, there was often a disconnect between the technology rock bands expected and the technology venues could provide. I found a story from 1976 about the band Boston canceling a gig at Miami-Dade Community College because the stage was a mere two and a half feet high, and the electrical hookups didn’t meet the group’s needs.
It wasn’t uncommon for bands to include quirky line items to double-check attention to detail. Here’s how it worked for rock group Kansas in 1985:
Kansas didn’t actually need double-scoop tutti-frutti ice cream cones. Venues just had to mention the request to the band; the expectation was that it would be noticed, not necessarily fulfilled.
In all those articles I found about contract riders in the 1970s and ’80s, it was clear that venues ask bands all the time if they can skip or adjust certain items in the contract rider. These are long documents; not everything is going to be feasible or available in every location.
This is where some cracks start to form in Roth’s explanation for the M&M test. If removing the brown ones was a fact-checking mechanism, surely Van Halen would have been fine with getting a bowl of uncurated candies, as long as someone asked about it. But it’s clear, based on the band members’ own quotes from the 1980s, that they expected to get an actual bowl of M&M’s, sans brown ones.
Beyond that, there’s no way the M&M’s were a useful signal once they became well known as a test. This image is from an August 1980 issue of the Tennessean, when the band was still newly famous:
Consider this: The M&M test was essentially a meme in 1980. Even people who weren’t fans of Van Halen surely knew them as the Rockers Who Don’t Like Brown M&M’s. Venues anticipated the demand, made light of it and gave interviews before concerts to show off their efforts to carefully remove the candies. It was a running joke.
The problem, of course, is if everyone knows about your top-secret line item, it’s no longer an effective way of ensuring people are paying attention. If anything, the brown M&M’s probably became an easy way for a venue to show Van Halen organizers had read the contract carefully, even if they hadn’t, in a neat inversion of the “clever band tries to fool the venue” narrative that emerged with Roth’s 1997 autobiography.
Another point against Roth: As writer Chris Dale observed in a 2020 story for Metal Talk, Van Halen’s whole contract rider was 53 pages long. At any concert venue, multiple people are working on different aspects of planning a show, so it’s unlikely the staff handling catering were the same ones working on the technical side of things or even reading the same pages of the contract. “Even at the smallest of club venues, the person making sandwiches for the band at teatime is not the in-house electrician,” Dale wrote. “The accuracy of backstage snacks is therefore no guarantee of safety onstage whatsoever.”
The only conclusion I can draw from this is the M&M test is almost certainly what it seemed to be in the first place: a way for some of rock music’s biggest egos to make a statement about just how demanding, brash and obnoxious they could be. In the 1980s, rumors suggested that Van Halen’s candy demands were an attempt to emulate Kiss, which had (supposedly!) banned red M&M’s due to the red dye scare of 1976, or because Van Halen had once played an especially good gig after eating M&M’s that happened not to include any brown ones. Those stories seem plausible, as does the possibility that the band just wanted to give the impression that they were celebrities whose word was law.
Van Halen infamous M & M's tour rider designed to make sure promoters read the whole contract pic.twitter.com/qRCPxpAsbx— Rock Candy Magazine (@RockCandyMag) June 18, 2020
Whatever the real origin story, when this line item became public, Van Halen clearly embraced the message it sent. Interviewers asked them about the M&M’s throughout the 1980s, and every time, the answer was a smirking acknowledgment: “Yeah, we ask for that. Isn’t it wild?”
The M&M test fit Van Halen’s image as bad boys of hard rock—a persona members had worked hard to build. A posed photo of the band from 1978 shows them drinking heavily and looking at a porn magazine together, as a handgun sits on the table in front of them. That vibe was essential to their brand and their ability to sell records and draw an audience. The M&M’s—and the waves of attention the band got from them—were fully intentional efforts to convey a sense of outrageousness and ego, in the same way the Foo Fighters use their rider to show they’re loveable guys who are in on the joke.
If there’s any credit to give for innovation, it’s this: Van Halen was probably the first band to understand its contract rider could be a form of publicity, a way to show off its message and attitude in a way that felt authentic and not posed. It was indeed clever of the group to insist that venues remove brown M&M’s—but not because of any concerns about safety. It was marketing, pure and simple.