If you’re interested in the personal details of a rock star’s life, a contract rider is a gold mine. A press release or ghostwritten autobiography can feel like it’s crafted to present a certain image, but a contract rider feels, at first glance, more mundane and personal, a series of details not meant to be publicized. So say the gifted ones playing ego games with comfort food. . .
From The Smithsonian Magazine:i
all kinds of technical details, along with various food mandates. The wildest request by far was a line item requesting a bowl of M&M’s, with “absolutely no brown ones.” a
You can find versions of this tale going back to May 1980, following a concert by the band at the Milwaukee Arena in Wisconsin. “In catering to the taste of his stars,” the Racine Journal Times reported, “the stage manager of Landmark Productions had to pluck all the brown ones out of six bags of the little goodies. He can now attest that a typical bag contains more brown than any other color.”
Published on June 22, 1974, this Calgary Herald reports that bands like Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young are out-of-control jerks, as evidenced by their contract riders. “Neil Young always wants a bottle of Baby Duck wine, perfectly cooled in a bucket,” music promoter Frank Middleton grumbled to the newspaper. Young also demanded steak, a pen and music sheet paper; the band further stipulated that its four members needed two separate limousines to pick them up from the airport.
Some bands hate it when their rider gets out. In 2015, Jack White, lead singer of the band the White Stripes, became incensed when a University of Oklahoma student newspaper published his guacamole preferences. As the Current reported at the time:
“Last winter, student journalists at the University of Oklahoma couldn’t have guessed they were breaking a story that media around the world would find absolutely delicious—even though it was a story about guacamole. Specifically, the story was about the detailed (“we want it chunky”) guacamole recipe that Jack White and his crew required backstage for a February show on campus, according to the tour rider that the Oklahoma Daily published with sardonic commentary.
During the show, White commented angrily about the student paper’s decision to publish the rider, saying, “Just because you can type it on your computer doesn’t make it right.” (The contract was available to the paper under Oklahoma vvRcstate law, since the university is a public entity.)”
If there’s any credit to give for innovation, it’s this: Van Halen was probably the first band to understand its contract rider could be a form of publicity, a way to show off its message and attitude in a way that felt authentic and not posed. It was indeed clever of the group to insist that venues remove brown M&M’s—but not because of any concerns about safety. It was marketing, pure and simple.
The M&M test fit Van Halen’s image as bad boys of hard rock—a persona members had worked hard to build. A posed photo of the band from 1978 shows them drinking heavily and looking at a porn magazine together, as a handgun sits on the table in front of them. That vibe was essential to their brand and their ability to sell records and draw an audience.