The Lesson of the Brown M&Ms

An recent episode of This American Life opened with the infamous story about Van Halen’s tour contract back in the 80s, which stipulated that there must be a bowl of M&Ms in their dressing room and that said bowl must contain NO brown M&Ms.

Of course this contract provision was always interpreted as another example of the bizarre behavior of rich, spoiled rock stars. But it turns out that wasn’t the case at all.  According to the TAL piece, and as described in more detail on Snopes, the M&M provision had a very important role to play.  Every venue that Van Halen played was different, with a different crew to set up and run the show.  Rock shows in the 80s were big, elaborate performances and the contracts ran for pages and pages and pages with technical specifications.  How much weight the stage needed to be able to hold.  How much electricity would be required.  On and on and on.  The M&M provision — buried deep in the middle of all this technical detail — was a way for them to check to see if anyone at the venue had paid attention.  If they got backstage and found brown M&Ms then you could be pretty sure that there would be some technical error.

I love this story.  I love it for the obvious reason — the sheer brilliance of using something silly for a serious reason.  But I also love it because I think it perfectly illustrates that details matter.  Van Halen didn’t have a contract rider that was, to quote David Lee Roth, as long a the “Chinese Yellow Pages” because they loved paying lawyers to write them.  They had that rider because every detail mattered.  Best case scenario the show would be ruined or some piece of property (the venue’s or the band’s) might get damaged.  Worst case scenario someone could get seriously hurt.

The fastest way to lose my respect is to tell me that you aren’t a “detail person.”  When someone claims to be a “big picture” thinker and therefore cannot be expected to pay attention to the details, I just roll my eyes.  Most often I think these people are just plain lazy.  Details can be dull and tedious and they are usually the less-fun part of a project.  It’s convenient, then, to be the big, strategic thinker who can come in, brainstorm endlessly, then relax while others get the actual job done.  Being detail-oriented is a basic skill that anyone can learn.  Sure, some people are better than others and some jobs call for more or less of it.  But there is no excuse for setting out bowls of brown M&Ms when your job is to know they don’t belong there.