Van Halen’s No Brown M&Ms: The Greatest Checklist of All Time?

A few days back, Larry offered up a few pointers on checklists, opening the door to write a little about one of the greatest checklists of all-time, the Van Halen ’82 Backstage Rider.

Van Halen was my favorite band growing up. I’ve purchased all their music, seen them live 5 times (2 Daves, 2 Sammys, 1 Gary), but just recently learned a neat little management trick that they deployed during their earlier days.

They were management experts all along. Who knew?

In the early 80s, when the band was rising in popularity and touring heavily, they’d provide each upcoming venue with their requirements rider.  The rider contained all sorts of specific needs, ranging from the items needed to set up each backstage room to meal specifics to equipment needs. Almost hidden in the middle of the huge, multi-page rider was this little innocent looking gem:

Munchies:
Potato chips with assorted dips
Nuts
Pretzels
M&Ms (WARNING: ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES)
Twelve (12) Reese’s peanut butter cups
Twelve (12) assorted Dannon yogurt (on ice)

The “no brown M&Ms” rule was chalked up by media as ridiculous rock star excess, an arbitrary little harassment technique to remind everyone who the stars were. The truth was actually quite different.

At the time, Van Halen was one of the first bands to tour with a brand new kind of lighting and sound system – one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world at the time. They moved this equipment from show to show, playing mostly in big arenas that were originally built in the 1950s.   For the most part, the band knew that these older arenas were not equipped to handle Van Halen’s stage show: the doorways weren’t big enough, the loading docks weren’t strong enough, and so forth. As a result, very special care and accommodation was required not only to avoid huge additional costs that could result from increased setup and breakdown times, but also to prevent serious potential injury.   Getting all the setup requirements right was critically important.

Consequently, if the band walked into a venue and saw brown M&Ms, they’d take it as a strong indication that all the other important, precise safety and logistical requirements may not have been met. This was so important that technically, when the brown M&Ms were absent, the band had the right to cancel the entire show and still be paid in full.

Checklists for your own use can be helpful tools to minimize error and create confidence. Adding flags in checklists can be a helpful shortcut in reviewing their successful use and implementation by others.

And now I can check off “use Van Halen in a productivity blog post” from my own checklist…

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