VAN HALEN, a heavy-metal rock quartet, demands that two pounds of M & Ms be placed in their dressing room before every show. Two pounds, that is, with all the brown ones removed. After a Midwestern college gig where the promoters left in the offending brown candies, Van Halen trashed the stage and dressing room, causing the school to ban rock concerts.
Ridiculous? Pretty? Arrogant? Perhaps -- but what could the promoters do? The M & M requirement was stipulated in writing in the performance contract, included as a so-called "rider" clause. And in recent years, the rider demands have grown increasingly demanding.
When Pink Floyd played Madison Square Garden in 1977, the group asked the promoter to provide a miniature-golf putting course, ping-pong and pool tables, pinball machines and imported caviar. They got them all. In 1976, when Elton John sold out seven shows at the same facility (that's 140,000 tickets), he asked that 10,000 foam-rubber bananas be dropped from the ceiling onto the seventh show audience. Request denied.
Shaun Cassidy (when he was younger) used to ask for a room or trailer with a double bed and clean sheets and pillowcases so he could take a nap before his concerts.
Gino Vanelli insists on white limousines. "You ever try and get a white limo in Macon, Georgia?" wails one disgruntled promoter.
When Van Halen played the Los Angeles Coliseum's California World Music Festival, the group demanded to have a Sherman tank roll over a Volkswagen. There was a test run during the sound check -- including firing off a blank charge from the tank's cannon. They dropped the idea after the rehearsal.
When Z.Z. Top toured the country several years ago with a live steer, promoters had to produce a salt stick for the beast.
Rod Stewart demands Pimm's No. 1 Cup, a standard British tropical drink. But in states with government-operated liquor stores which do not carry rare brands (Virginia, for example), promoters have been forced to smuggle bottles of Pimm's and Dom Perignon in briefcases to satisfy contract riders. To a man, promoters feel that the demands have gotten out of hand.
"Rider demands have jumped in the last six years," says a Southern promoter. "People get carried away. And though we've never lost a show, we've had to make adjustments in the money situation when we sometimes haven't met all the rider requirements."
Since 1975, more acts have developed heavy riders and the promoters, whose profits are limited by hooking agents already, are fed up. "There's going to be a rebellion in the next year," says a Northeast promoter. "We are no longer making money, a lot of us are going out of business, and to survive we need to cut costs and get back to reality."
It's a long way from 1963 and the Beatles "Tour of the Century." Then, the band's two-page contract called for two limousines ("air conditioned, if possible"), two cases of cold soda and two spotlights. "It was the most polite thing in the world," recalls a New York booking agent.
Today's riders often take up 20 pages, listing not only stage design and technical requirements, but how to account for money and make deposits on ticket sales. They also list -- explicitly and expensively -- demands for food, drink and other comforts.
It's a long way from the late '60s, when Jimi Hendrix was surprised to find a bucket of chicken in his dressing room at the Baltimore Civic Center. It's a long way from the early '70s, when a not-yet-star named Bruce Springsteen used to say the "Heaven was a Holiday Inn and McDonalds." In fact, promoters had to find one in the proximity of the other when providing accommodations for Springsteen.
It's a long way from surprise delitrays and catered meals in the mid-'70s, when less was expected and much less demanded. But when Van Halen insists that unsold seats behind the stage be draped or blocked off with a dark curtain -- well, promoters see red. When food riders come in at 2 1/2 pages (longer than menus at many restaurants and with more varied dishes), when promoters have to scour a town, for a rare bottle of tequila (or sake, in the case of Joni Mitchell) -- well, it has become a deadly serious business.
Many of the food demands are in fact geared to the road crews, who often work from 8 a.m. to show time, then break down the equipment and sleep en route to the next site. "The crews are being fed more than I feed myself these days," says a Midwest promoter. Adds another, "If I wanted to be in the delicatessen business," Promoter Ron Delsener, addressing a Billboard convention promoters' panel, started the proceedings by telling the audience, "Welcome to the largest catering service in the world."
Besides providing up to 60 meals three times a day (in extreme cases), promoters have to face the individual quirks of the performers. "Yes wants hot food in their hotel," says one promoter. "And let me tell you, Holiday Inns love outside caterers in their hotels. And that's besides the food for their crew."
(Most of the promoters interviewed requested anonymity: "We have to keep working with these people." Agents and managers were even more tight-lipped.)
Some groups -- the Grateful Dead and Jethro Tull, among them -- travel with their own caterers these days, with local runners providing fresh fruits, vegetables and other ingredients. The Dead used to demand steak and lobster for 20 people. Jan Hammer asked for three extra-cheese pizzas and assorted imported chocolates. Leslie West of Mountain asked only for two buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken. Blackfoot asks for barbecued ribs -- from Mama Leone's in Jacksonville, Fla. (though they'll settle for hot Mexican food). When they come off stage, Aerosmith wants a whole cooked turkey, Cat Stevens Indian food and Molly Hatchett a pizza. And for cleaning teeth, certain groups specify wooden toothpicks with square, not pointed, ends.
Liquid demands have ranged from warm beer (for Meatloaf, whose manager denied it though several promoters mentioned it) to 17 different kinds of wine for one well-known antinuke balladeer (who also suggested temperatures at which they should be chilled). Frank Sinatra, on the other hand, asks only for hot tea with honey, cough drops and Hershey Kisses. Terrible Ted Nugent, who doesn't drink or use drugs, asks for Verner's Ginger Ale, a brand found mainly in the Michigan area. In a rare spirit of cooperation, his roadies usually bring several cases on the road as a backup. For years, the Beach Boys have asked for smoothies (a West Coast milkshake). "We never supplied 'em," says Dave Williams of Washington's Cellar Door Productions. "Nobody around here knew what a smoothie was."
"It's a way of subsidizing road crew's," complains one veteran promoter. "We end up providing not only food but liquor, which they then take on the bus to the next gig." "He recalled the Southern boogie band whose contract called for five bottles of a particularly expensive and rare brand of whiskey. After several days, he found the brand. When the road manager showed up to claim the bottles, the promoter followed him and was shocked to see him open a case already loaded with several dozen bottles of the same brand. The manager sheepishly explained that the band was collecting booze for a major post-tour blowout from every promoter on a very long tour.
Celler Door's Williams feels that "riders are getting easier about things like limousines [$25 per hour per car]. Where they're getting tougher is technically, as sound and lighting systems require more and more power." When the Beatles played D.C. Stadium Armory in 1964, they used a Sure Vocalmaster system and Sure microphones; if you look at pictures from that concert, you'd ask "Where's the equipment?" "No self-respecting nightclub owner would put that system in his club today," laughs Williams.
In the late '60s, Gordon Lightfoot used to carry his own sound and light system -- in the back of his station wagon. Now groups travel with anywhere from two to 12 tractor-trailer trucks and many promoters must rent extra generators and cables to keep up with power demands.
Rider demands can include roses (without thorns, for the fans, thank you), pinball machines (for Queen, but not for the Who or Kiss, who sing about them and are featured on them, respectively), or separate limousines and dressing rooms (for Emerson, Lake and Palmer, now parted).
Artists' agents protect their clients' interests in other ways, too, George Thorogood refused to tour during the summer because he plays in a semi-pro baseball league. Randy Newman won't play Monday nights during the football season. Cat Stevens always sets a 13th date on his tours, holds the hall and then cancels the concert to avoid playing that 13th date. Martin Mull insisted in his old contracts that "any midget present at the performance shall be escorted by the operator to a front row position so that the stage shall easily be seen."
When Leon Russell played at RFK Stadium a few years back, he insisted not only that a limousine drive him the 250 feet from his dressing room to the stage steps, but also that no representative of the Steinway piano company be allowed on the concert site -- where they would no doubt have had heart attacks watching him jump up and down while pummeling their rented concert grand. Russell also asked on occasion for dinner to be served on white tablecloths with real china and silver service. Last year, Dire Straits was asking for the same thing.
But the concert market has been soft this summer, and many groups, or at least those that have continued to tour, are now willing to go with a lower guaranteed minimum of box-office revenue and a limiting of expenses. "They pay for everything they ask for in the long run," says one group's agent. "Since most of the bands work in percentages after guarantees, they end up eating a higher percentage than the promoters." This claim is laughed by most of the promoters, who say they watch the groups band their high guarantees long before the question of expenses is ever discussed.
"If a show makes a profit, it can have a direct bearing on what the group is paid, "says Celler Door's Williams."You know, a promoter never gets rich off any one show. When you make a profit, you never worry about the petty stuff. If you lose and you paid $400 for a case of Dom Perignon, then the rider is unreasonable."
In a hypothetical concert with a $100,000 gross, the bands might get guarantees of $40,000, with cumulative expenses -- sound, lights, rentals, security, advertising and riders -- costing another $30,000.At that point the promoter makes about $12,500. After that, he reaches what is called the split point, where the band promoter split any remaining monies, with the band getting anywhere from 60 to 90 percent. On a show with expenses as stated above, the promoter can make $15,000. If the show bombs, he could lose two or three times that. With an average $8 ticket, the potential gross at the Capital Centre -- unless the seats in back of the stage are not sold -- is around $150,000. The bigger the hall and the bigger the group, the higher the stakes. Concert promotion is basically high-stakes gambling.
What can a series of nontechnical riders add to the cost of a concert? Anywhere from $2,000 to $4,000, costs which of course eventually get passed on to the ticket buyer, though ticket prices are negotiated between promoters and agents. Riders can also be negotiated out of the contract if they pose a real problem. Some promoters, with enough clout can, on occasion, simply ignore the more ridiculous demands.
Riders will change with the times. Over the last 10 years, rock music has developed a new species of technicians -- roadies, sound and light men, managers, publicists, bodyguards, maseurs, hair stylists -- all of whom can make for a road production of overbearing size. Williams insists that things will continue to get easier on promoters, as more groups are joining Todd Rundgren in setting dollar limits on food riders.
And some of the artists' demands are both simple and cheap. Steppenwolf may have been "Born to Be Wild," but all they really used to ask for was Juicyfruit gum. Neil Diamond, performing at his own record company's convention, demanded six bottle openers: He didn't want to have to look for one after he'd put it down somewhere. Yes members want Harlem Globetrotter uniforms for their current tour, Rod Stweart wants soccer jerseys from local teams as he travels the big-city circuit, and Peter Frampton wants a soccer net set up backstage so he can get his kicks.
And sometimes promoters have even provided perks without a contract stipulation. When Chicago and the Beach Boys shared five days at the Captial Centre in 1977, the promoters voluntairly set up a backstage basketball hoop for the long hours the groups would be stuck at the arena. Chicago's Robert Lamm went up for a hook shot, came down on a broken ankle and ended up playing the remaining concert from a wheelchair.