Negotiation Lessons from Van Halen

You may have heard the legend that Van Halen used to demand a supply of M&Ms backstage at their concerts, with all the brown M&Ms removed.  Well, it turns out the legend is true.  As was recently found by The Smoking Gun, the demand was written into the band’s performance contract, and promoters were actually contractually obligated to remove the brown M&Ms.  The request could easily be written off as bratty behavior of diva rock-stars, but there is more to it.  Van Halen lead singer David Lee Roth explains in this exerpt of his autbiography Crazy from the Heat

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.The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say “Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen 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.

The brown M&M clause was actually a mechanism for doing a quick audit of contract compliance.  The band picked a simple, visual cue to see if the actions specified in the contract had been followed.  If the hidden, yet specific and clear M&Ms instruction had been met, the odds were good that the rest of the contract had been followed also.  If not, they would then do a full audit.

Is there something we can learn from Van Halen’s example?  Perhaps.  When drafting a contract, or licensing deal, it may be useful to develop a similar mechanism for tracking compliance short of a full audit.

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