Band Riders and the Legend of the Brown M&Ms
New York-based photographer Henry Hargreaves and food artist Caitlin Levin have done something amazing. No, I don’t mean their gingerbread recreations of famous art galleries and museums or photographs of deep-fried tech gadgets, though both are equally cool. I mean Band Riders, a photography project depicting the catering requests of various musicians’ riders in the style of a Flemish still life.
A rider is an addition to a performance contract that lays out the details of a show. Typically, these include specifications for equipment, lighting, sound systems, and other mundane necessities, but also extends to the setup of the dressing room and food and drink requirements. It was on the latter that the team placed their focus. As Hargreaves explains on his website,
“These requests range from the low maintenance to the outrageous. What attracted us to do this series was the way their requests manage to say something about the performers’ personality that words struggle to and how we can identify with them through food and drink.
“…The idea to show them in a Flemish Still Life manner was because we felt that there was a direct connection between the themes in the paining of time passing and mortality with the musician’s time in the fading limelight and the short span they would have to be able to make these demands and have them fulfilled.”
The one that struck my interest as a skeptic was Van Halen’s rider. Van Halen, of course, is the band best known for demanding that the staff include a bowl of M&Ms in the green room with all of the brown ones removed. In society’s consciousness, the story is a symbol of the incredible excess and over-the-top narcissism common to rock stars of all stripes.
When I found out the true story behind the M&M rider, I suddenly saw Van Halen as less of a group of prima donnas and more of a well-oiled entertainment machine.
The band was one of the first to bring massive productions into small towns that weren’t used to that sort of thing, and would often bring nine 18-wheelers full of gear to loading bays that had only ever seen three trucks at once. Because they required so much in the way of technical specifications, their rider was 53 pages long. Because their rider was 53 pages long, they had to have a way of making sure that the venue’s staff had read every word. Otherwise, terrible things could happen — electrocutions, falling equipment, or, as happened in one Colorado town, $80,000 worth of damage to a floor that couldn’t support the weight of the staging.
And so, the brown M&Ms clause was born. If a band member walked into the dressing room and saw that the brown M&Ms were still in the bowl, they knew chances were good that other more important details had been overlooked as well, and they could pull out of the contract with no refunds.
Of course, this is when the prima donnas really came out. In his autobiography, David Lee Roth recounted his reaction to the Colorado kerfuffle: “I came backstage. I found some brown M&M’s, I went into full Shakespearean “What is this before me?”…you know, with the skull in one hand…and promptly trashed the dressing room. Dumped the buffet, kicked a hole in the door, twelve thousand dollars’ worth of fun.”