According to rock n’ roll lore, Van Halen’s 1982 touring contract rider required the band be provided with M&M’s backstage at every show – absolutely no brown ones – or they would not perform. Turns out it’s true; but is it merely rock star narcissism? Hardly. The real reason is far more compelling – as is the lesson that it teaches about management, logistics and attention to detail.
In case you’re wondering, a rider is a portion of a contract in which performers list prerequisites necessary for their performance. Van Halen’s fabled document outlined exhaustive instructions for their technically complex production, from lighting amperage to staging weight, ticketing to security.
Among quirkier requirements, promoters were to provide the band with “herring in sour cream,” an impressive assortment of liquor, and beer, and “One (1) large tube KY Jelly.”
Buried somewhere in the middle of it all was the colorful candy caveat; “M&Ms (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES) There will be no brown M&Ms in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation.” While that infamous demand was long decried as outrageous rock star conceit, singer David Lee Roth eventually clarified in his memoir a more practical purpose behind the provision.
Roth explained that he devised the M&M clause to signal whether or not promoters had actually read the imposing, 53-page document detailing the elaborate concert logistics. If brown M&M’s were found on the catering table the band could surmise that important technical details might have been missed during preparations for their performance.
Lawyers call it putting a Trojan horse in the contract. In poker parlance it’s a “tell”. Roth referred to it as his canary in a coal mine. Here’s the story dished-up directly by Diamond Dave himself, as only he can tell it, right before your naked, steaming eyeballs:
They say not to sweat the small stuff, and that it’s all small stuff. Perhaps, but the devil is in the details, and not reading the fine print could make your life hell. Coca-Cola found that out the hard way with a rather embarrassing typo on nearly 2 million Olympic commemorative 12-pack cartons.
Small type under the copyright information that should have said, “The red disk icon and contour bottle are trademarks of the Coca-Cola Co.,” took on a whole new meaning when someone errantly replaced the “s” in “disk” with a “c”. Forget spell-check, only human eyes could have caught that one – but none did, until it was too late.
Seems as though attention to detail was also in short supply at shoemaker, Reebok, when they put their foot in it by dubbing a women’s running shoe the Incubus. The problem? An incubus is a mythical demon said to descend upon women, raping them in their sleep. Oops.
Reebok in-house marketers came up with the name (I’ll say it again; branding is far too important to leave to the marketing department). The legal team even did patent research, yet astonishingly it seems nobody knew what the word meant, or bothered to look it up in the dictionary.
Incubus didn’t actually appear on the 53,000 pairs of $60 sneakers shipped to U.S. retailers, only on their packaging. The footwear sold for a year with nary a complaint until ABC news noted the naming gaffe in a feature story prompting Reebok to recall 18,000 unsold units – and leaving them with their rubber-heeled foot in their mouth.
You can’t manage every detail, but you can set up systems that help you monitor operations to avoid disaster. Do what Roth did; create your own canary in a coal mine. Pay attention to details, read the fine print, build in fail-safes to make sure you’re always performing on a solid foundation.
Dave wasn’t a diva he was a detail-driven professional; the consummate artist, committed to excellence; a master of manipulation with a clever tactician’s mind for managing myriad moving parts. Who knew that Diamond Dave had so much in common with Steve Jobs? Who knew that rock n’ roll’s hedonist-hero in ass-less, leather pants who penned the lyric, “All I want to give you woman… is the best part of a man,” could teach us so much about operational genius?
As Dave would say, “Class diissss–missed.”