Guitarist Eddie Van Halen
Music Productivity

Van Halen’s Brown M&M Trick (and how it can help you)

It’s 1982 and US rockers Van Halen are on the road with their “Hide Your Sheep” tour. Let’s not get too sidetracked by its name – safe to say it’s one of those occasions we can all breathe a sigh of relief that “what happens on tour, stays on tour”. Although it won’t yet be apparent, there’s a good reason why a bloke who runs an animation business in Bedfordshire is telling you what a bunch of hairy musicians got up to nearly 40 years ago. First, a little bit of background.

All touring performers have a rider: a list of requirements to be fulfilled by the venue. Riders usually cover food and drink for the band and crew but they have also been known to stipulate unused toilet seats (Madonna), butlers (Rolling Stones) and 100 white doves (Mariah Carey, obvs.) Even by rock star standards, Van Halen’s 53-page rider was a whopper. Lurking within its typed pages was a line that’s now cemented in rock history.

“M&M’s (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)”

When news of their very specific confectionery requirements leaked, it was laughed off as behaviour typical of prima donna rock stars disappearing up their own backsides. Actually, there was method in the madness and it’s a tactic you can employ too.

Rob Birnie pictured with former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar and Michael Anthony
Me (pointy bloke) with former Van Halen members Sammy Hagar (l) and Michael Anthony (r)

You see, at that time, especially in the States, Van Halen were HUGE. Everything about them was massive; sales, drugs intake, hair… Unsurprisingly their stage shows weren’t exactly small, intimate affairs either. In fact, many venues just weren’t equipped to cope with their scale. As such, Van Halen’s tour contracts contained loads of detailed, technical information regarding the stage and lighting rigs which, if not carefully read and acted upon, could lead to potentially lethal situations. So, the band developed a test – the thinking being if they got backstage and spotted any rogue brown M&Ms, there’s a good chance the venue also wouldn’t have paid attention to the important technical stuff in the paperwork. The M&M clause was all about sussing out venues’ attenshun to detail.

Photo of a section of Van Halen's 1982 tour rider showing the famous brown M&Ms requirement
The brown M&M clause from page 40 of Van Halen’s 1982 tour rider.
Image from smokinggun.com

Did you wince at the typo in the last sentence? Nothing broadcasts lack of attention to detail like websites littered with spelling and grammatical errors. They look shoddy and make you wonder if that carelessness extends to all aspects of their work. The DBM Motion Graphics version of Van Halen’s competency test only takes a minute and all you need is your phone.

Our brown M&M is an apostrophe and it lurks (or should do) in the “About” sections of websites. Pick a company (go on, try one of your competitors) and head to the biographical bit of their site. Nine times out of ten there will be a sentence along the lines of “We have 15 years experience in our field.” More often than not, the word “years” will be missing an apostrophe. It should say “15 years’ experience” (or, to omit the need for the apostrophe, be phrased “15 years of experience”). You’re going to check your own site now, aren’t you!

I realise this makes me come across all Judgy McJudgeface but hear me out. That missing apostrophe is like Van Halen’s M&M test because it’s a small, easy to forget detail that flags up the possibility the site’s owners may not be 100% on the ball with the big, important stuff either. You’d be amazed at how many “professional” copywriters’ and designers’ sites fail the test.

So, if you want to suss out a company’s attention to detail, act like a rock star. Sheep optional.

For more about Van Halen’s famous M&Ms, have a look at this video featuring their singer at the time of the “Hide Your Sheep” tour, David Lee Roth.

Further reading

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