Nothing exceeds like excess.
LOS ANGELES—It was David Lee Roth who ruined personal-appearance contracts for all time with his Brown M&M’s Clause in the ’80s. The story sounds apocryphal but it’s true: Any promoter hiring Van Halen for a concert was required to supply M&M’s in the band’s dressing room but “ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES.”
In later years Roth would claim that this was not an example of spoiled rock star entitlement but a way to make sure that concert promoters read the entire contract and took care of other, more important provisions. I was actually buying this—promoters can be forgetful and dense at all levels of the business—until the Smoking Gun website tracked down the famous M&M’s rider so that we could read the rest of it. In order to “present to your customers the finest in contemporary entertainment,” Van Halen also needed two dozen English muffins, but not just any English muffins—they had to be Thomas brand English muffins—plus two cases of beer delivered precisely at 6 p.m., two more cases (one Budweiser and one Heineken) delivered to the stage manager at 7 p.m., different food menus for even and odd days, and, just to keep you on your toes in the implements department, “all forks must have four prongs.” Backstage the band also needed one case of Budweiser, four cases of Schlitz Malt Liquor (really?), one half case of Tab (perhaps even more shocking than the malt liquor), three fifths of Jack Daniels Black Label, two fifths of Stolichnaya, one pint of Southern Comfort, two bottles of Blue Nun white wine (whoever that was should lose his rock-star cred forever), three packs of Marlboros (these riders are for one day—is that guy dead yet?), and—the mind boggles—“one large tube of KY Jelly.”
The rider ran to eleven pages and is, in fact, ridiculously demanding. (“Any caterer not providing adequate condiments, utensils or ice will be subject to a $100.00 fine.”)
Van Halen’s rider might legitimately be considered excessive, yes. But consider it in context: rock and roll itself is about excess, about outrageousness, about the flamboyant scorning of all things moderate and reasonable. Too, Van Halen’s bounteous bucketload of backstage booty wouldn’t have been provided just for the band alone; there would also be plenty of crew, stagehands, and various green-room guests partaking of the goodies too.
My friend Aaron in New Orleans spent twenty-odd years as stage manager for the Beach Boys, and he strongly insisted that my own band put a request for several packs of new socks in our own modest rider. He said that you couldn’t really appreciate the joy of a fresh pair of socks until you really, really needed them—like, say, after days or even weeks on the road without the opportunity to hit a local laundromat. I was the one who wrote up our rider in the first place, and don’t remember if I updated the thing to include them or not. But I’m sure the old road-dog was right.
Like I said, our rider was pretty modest; by the time we had clawed our way up from the lower rungs of the fame-and-success ladder, we were just so damned tickled that we might reasonably be expected to even have a rider at all that we were content to keep things simple. As I recall, aside from the standard provisions regarding stage setup and gear, we asked for: 1) clean hand towels (NOT bar rags); bottled water, assorted sodas, and beer on ice; a large deli tray; a half gallon of Evan Williams Black Label bourbon; and two (2) packs of Camel Light cigarettes.
Usually, we got ’em. But not always.
Once you’re operating above the level of small clubs and local restaurants and graduated to 500-1500 seat dedicated concert halls or theaters, contract riders become essential things, true necessities for surviving on the road. Many if not most venues have long since become used to the idea of accommodating the artists to whatever degree they can, having been trained to it by higher-level headliners who are often on their slow descent from years of coliseum- and stadium-tour glory. Those acts expect a certain level of comfort, and if they don’t get it their management is sure to make trouble.
It’s a truism in the music biz that if you don’t act as if you’re somebody, you’ll be treated as nobodies. A certain amount of confidence and self-respect is as essential for success as talent is. All too many people in show biz are constantly on the hunt for pushovers to grow fat on by abusing them, and can spot an easy mark a mile away. A solid, professional rider is one way to help fend such bloodsuckers off. In addition to the practical aspects, contract riders are a declaration of status, a demand for respect.
Contrary to what one might expect, there are a great many venue owners, managers, and staff out there who take great pride in making sure their artists are totally happy with the facility. Those people are the true angels of the band business; their places are always a pure joy to perform in. Not only do they pay close attention to the lights, the sound system, and the overall ambience of the place, they also tend to go the extra mile to make sure the concert experience is a good one for their patrons as well as the musicians. Happily, those places usually stay around a good long while, becoming beloved icons in their city. When they finally close down, it’s a very sad occasion for a whole bunch of people: bands, their crews, venue staff, and concert-goers alike.