Executive Profile: Eric Dimenstein

Ground Control Touring’s Eric Dimenstein knew from a young age he wanted a job in the music industry. It was just a matter of which one to choose. 

“I grew up loving music and had friends in bands. I tried to play drums for a brief period of time but realized I didn’t quite have the talent for that,” Dimenstein told Pollstar. “But a lot of my friends were in bands and getting going, setting up and playing shows.”

“There came a time where I just wanted to help out any way I could.”

After the Connecticut native moved to New York City at age 19 to attend Fordham University, he found the outlets he needed to explore the possibilities. His ability to easily multitask came in handy.

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 While taking classes, Dimenstein simultaneously participated in various internships at businesses including Alex Kochan’s Artists & Audience Entertainment and Brick Wall Management. In time he found an opening at a 1,000-capacity nightclub called Tramps, booked by Steve Weitzman, and began his hands-on training around 1995.

It was during his time at Tramps that Dimenstein met former ICM agent Mike Krebs, then working for Delsener/Slater Enterprises, which booked acts at the club.

When Krebs decided to return to ICM in the late 1990s, Dimenstein also made the move as Kreb’s assistant. The aspiring agent worked with a variety of acts but it was the indie and alternative acts that caught Dimenstein’s attention.

His affiliation with ICM introduced him to Legends of the 21st Century, formerly known as Twin Towers Touring, run by Bob Lawton and Steve Kaul, where he would later work and meet Jim Romeo.

Dimenstein and Romeo eventually formed a partnership and launched Ground Control Touring in 2000.
The agency has since grown to a client roster of 162 acts and offices in Brooklyn, N.Y., Carrboro, N.C., Nashville and Austin.

Dimenstein’s multitasking skills, as agent and President of Ground Control Touring, are in full force with his client roster including Conor Oberst and his various projects (Bright Eyes, Desaparecidos, Monsters of Folk), Sonic Youth and its associated projects, Wild FlagShe & HimM. WardJenny Lewis, and Kurt Vile, to name a few.

And at the time of this interview, Dimenstein was looking for an alternative venue for a concert by The Feelies scheduled at The Sinclair in Cambridge, Mass., because the police manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombers shut down the area.

“Thankfully, I didn’t have too many other shows that night,” he said.

What was it about being an agent that grabbed your attention?

I knew I liked the live end of the business from working the promoter and club side, helping Steve Weitzman out, putting up flyers and seeing the different bands each night. I hadn’t worked for a record label but I got to see and understand what that was all about and found my interest was more in the live end and closer to the artists. I just wanted to work with the bands that I liked. On the promoter side you often have to work with bands you like and don’t like to stay in business. That put me on the side of the artist and becoming an agent.

I think I gravitated toward it because it was something I felt I was good at and enjoyed. It’s a hard job, it’s very time-consuming and there’s a lot of multitasking. But because I was doing what I wanted to do, and for the most part, with people I wanted to be involved with, I didn’t mind.

How did your career get started?

I moved to New York and while at school, I tried different internships here and there. I interned at Artists & Audience Entertainment, Alex Kochan’s [agency], so I got a lot of experience there. A lot of people such as Sam Kirby, Ken Fermaglich and Tim Borror were at A&A at that time. I also worked at a small management company called Brick Wall Management.

Then I kind of pushed my way into a club in the city at the time called Tramps as a way to get into the club and live music end of things. A manager at the Angelika Film Center, where I was working as a barista part-time, knew Steve Weitzman at Tramps. I used that relationship to meet with Steve and pretty much offered to do everything and anything needed just to get in the door, be around the club and shows.

Over time I checked I.D.s (while underage at one point), sold merch, and hung posters and put up fliers around town. I would go in on Saturdays and count bottles behind the bar. Eventually, a now-good friend, Sean Foley, brought me closer to the stage/backstage. I’d do everything from catering and hospitality-runner-type stuff for the bands to stage security during shows, such as Gwar where kids would be going nuts. It was there I got bitten by a human not once but twice!

Where did that experience take you?

Delsener/Slater Enterprises was using Tramps as its 1,000-capacity room because, at that point, I think Metropolitan had Irving Plaza. The promoter for Delsener/Slater was Mike Krebs, who had worked for ICM.

He then went back to ICM to become an agent around 1997 or 1998. At that time, things aligned and I became his assistant at ICM.

How did your job at ICM expand your expertise?

It was a good experience and Mike’s a great guy. I learned what I liked and didn’t like about a large company. I got to learn a lot from Mike on how that side of the business worked from having seen the club side – sending contracts instead of receiving the contracts, and those kinds of things.

ICM previously bought Twin Towers Touring, which was [owned] by Bob Lawton and Steve Kaul. They pretty much had all of the indie or alternative-type bands in the ’90s you could think of. As part of the deal Steve moved up to ICM’s 57th Street office while Bob remained at the same old office downtown in SoHo.

ICM booked territorially so we worked with a lot of different types of bands coming through the Midwest, which was Mike’s territory. The bands I gravitated toward were a lot of bands that Steve was working with – Mike Watt, Built To Spill, or Dinosaur Jr.

But while I was there, ICM ended its contract with Twin Towers and, long story short, I went to work for Bob.

What prompted that move?

I think [ICM] wasn’t interested in doing as much newer music or the music I was into. They were [representing] a lot of larger, older types of acts.

What happened next?

When the Twin Towers deal with ICM ended, Twin Towers became known as Legends of the 21st Century under Bob, while Steve went to The Agency Group. I went to SoHo in New York to work just a few stories up from the job I had as a barista in what is known as the Cable Building. That’s where I met and began working with Jim Romeo.

I would work there during the day and then go to Tramps to work shows at night. I later did that at Irving Plaza for a short period of time, all the while picking up my own bands, helping out with some other bands and learning along the way.

What did you enjoy the most about working at Legends?

I really enjoyed being a part of a lineage that I really respected. I found myself working closely with what were some of my favorite bands and the people who helped and worked closely with them.  I mean, Thurston Moore would come in to pick up mail he had sent to the office. My 15-year-old self freaked out when I saw Sonic Youth playing Toad’s Place in New Haven on the “Goo” tour, so suffice it to say I felt extremely lucky.

There was a lot of music business history that came out of the Cable Building. It was before my time, but Frank Riley had Venture Booking there and Steve Martin, who now runs The Agency Group in New York, had an agency there, too, at one point. I’m told they used to share copies of Pollstar directories up and down the hall. And there were record labels like Matador, ROIR and Rough Trade there for a time, too.

Which act did your book for your first tour?

The first band I booked myself was a band from Portland, Ore., which a whole lot of people probably don’t remember, called Pinehurst Kids. Then I went on to book a band called Rainer Maria, which at the time got lumped into the Emo scene. I worked with them for a long time until they disbanded. I would also help out Bob and slowly developed my own roster.

Were there any lessons learned from handling all the details of those tours yourself?

I can’t remember any lessons learned but I do remember that after helping with a few dates here and there when I started, somewhere along the way something clicked in my understanding of the whole process.

I think it was good to have had the insight from working in clubs and getting the perspectives of the fans, artists, tour managers and promoters on that end. By the time I got to Legends of the 21st Century, I kind of knew what I was getting into and I just needed to get out there and do it.

It felt a bit more personal and slower paced when I started out, certainly with fewer emails than today. There were a lot of conversations and talking with people longer. But there was more time to do that, I feel, because there were less bands on the road and agencies were smaller. A boutique agency roster today could be anywhere between 200-600-plus artists. I can remember looking in Pollstar to see Twin Towers’ roster and there might have been 50 acts. There wasn’t this frantic pace of  “What are the holds?’ and “Let’s get an offer.”

What are the most significant changes in your job aside from technological advances?

The end result of the live show is the same but the way you go about it has changed a bit. It used to be mostly phones and faxes and distro maps. Now it’s a lot of emails, a higher level of intensity and faster pace with a larger number of bands and competition on the road.

And people are booking further out. It used to be you could book a tour three months out or six months out. Now people are booking a year out trying to get ahead of the next guy with all the bands on the road.

And the competition isn’t just in major cities. It could be a small city with three or four like-minded shows or bands on the same label competing with each other just because there’s so many bands on the road.

When I started, often bands would just take their friends as support acts, who may not have an album out or anything going on to help the draw and contribute to the shows’ success in any way. Some bands can and still do that, but more and more I find you have to look for strong packages and meaningful support with someone else who has a publicist, a label and a draw because you have to compete for people’s dollars. The stronger the bill from top to bottom can add more value for the ticket-holder.

Another fairly obvious change over the years has been with marketing and promotion as print has pretty much fallen by the wayside and it’s moved toward all types of online platforms. We do a lot of direct marketing and social media outreach-type things to make people aware of a show and sell tickets now.

It also feels like our artists play more branded or sponsored events than when I started out.  It may partly be that the artists’ outlook in the indie community may have eased up a bit on this and now it’s seen as a much-needed revenue source. The punk/indie ideals may have changed for some over the past few years. Shrinking album sales hasn’t helped either, and artists have to look for alternative income options. I think those companies have wisely toned down how they produce these events and that’s made it easier for the bands to deal with and accept them as well.

We are also not just mainly dealing with the United States or North America anymore. We’re dealing much more with South America and Mexico and elsewhere with great success. We’ve been dealing with the more-established Australia and Japan for awhile but now we are also dealing with many of the other parts of Asia, like China and Southeast Asia.

It’s exciting to be dealing with new venues, promoters and territories. It’s not just big arena shows and big festivals in those territories, either. There are people at all levels now that weren’t there before. Sending our artists to these markets more and more also allows for them to keep playing, making money and not overdoing or burning out markets here in the States.

Have the changes in the industry had any effect on how you develop an act?

Perhaps in the previously mentioned types of shows and territories that they play and how they are marketed has changed a bit.  One of the main goals still remains trying to get the artists before as many receptive people as possible and growing their audience along the way as it has been since I started.

That still could come from playing support to another artist on tour, festivals, free or soft-ticket special events, the hope still being the artists pick up some fans along the way and eventually contribute to their draw. It’s finding the right mixture.

I remember starting out with M. Ward years ago. He supported a lot of different kinds of artists and developed his own fan base along the way. He would go out with acts [such as] Lambchop, Vic Chesnutt, Cat Power, Norah Jones, My Morning Jacket, and Rilo Kiley. They all can be argued to have slightly different fan bases.

If there’s an artist who can straddle different worlds or demographics I think that’s great too. Kurt Vile can play a more mainstream festival like Coachella and also play a festival like Calgary Folk Festival.

How much more of challenge is it to set reasonable ticket prices?

[The challenge] is finding the right balance in the equation. An artist needs a certain amount of money to exist and stay on the road because they have expenses but. at the same time, you want to have a packed show rather than a half-full show. [You] need to work with the promoter to set the ticket price accordingly to achieve a win-win. It’s working with the promoters, artists and management to find the right equation where the band makes some money and the fans feel OK paying the ticket price for the show.

So how did Ground Control Touring come to be?

Bob decided to get out of the agency business and move to Florence, Mass. Jim Romeo and I wanted to continue on, so we came up with a name and started out sharing some office space with a manager.

It was a small roster to start. We had Pinehurst Kids and Rainer Maria, and shortly thereafter Bright Eyes and M. Ward, Rilo Kiley, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. But Jim had been working with bands like Cat Power, Neutral Milk Hotel, Belle & Sebastian, and Guided By Voices and they came along.

What changes has Ground Control Touring gone through since launching?

Shortly after Jim and I started Ground Control, Jim decided to move to North Carolina, where he still is. There’s a label there that we work closely with, Merge Records, and a lot of friends so it made sense for him.

It didn’t for me at that time. I might have been 24 or 25 and pretty content with New York City. So since that time, I’ve been developing the New York office and the agents and staff within it [as well as] Austin and Nashville.

In the early days, without a big support staff, I would be doing everything. I’d be booking during the day and doing contracts at night when I wasn’t working in the clubs. From previously working as an assistant and doing contracts and all that, I got a sense of the whole process and what needed to be done.

And Ground Control Touring has since expanded to four offices.

Yes and no. I wouldn’t call Austin a full-on office just yet but we have a great young agent, Timmy Hefner, who is based and working there. In the six months he’s been with us he picked up new artists like Daughn Gibson, Merchandise, Parquet Courts and Iceage along with somehow finding the time to also book and promote the upcoming Chaos in Tejas festival in Austin.

About seven years ago, Andrew Colvin came to work with us. He’s been nothing but great and his viewpoints and thinking on artist development runs very much parallel to ours. He’s been doing a great job and some of his acts such as Dawes, Justin Townes Earle, and Lucero are amazing. [Andrew’s] originally from Birmingham, Ala., and his brother lives and works in Nashville as a music attorney. For a lot of reasons it made sense for us to open an outpost there with Andrew at the helm. There’s a lot happening in Nashville and it’s exciting to be down there more often.

John Chavez came aboard five years ago now and has [also] been an extremely great fit. He’s working with some great bands such as Real Estate, Deer Tick, and Trash Talk.  He’s really developed into a great agent.

And with Jim still in North Carolina, that’s where things currently sit. Overseeing this is my longest-term employee, Sarah Mroue, who has stepped up as managing director to oversee our growth and development of all of this.  Expect much more exciting stuff to come.

What have been some of the highlights in GCT’s history?

One major highlight for me has been just the fact we are able to work with what I consider some of the most important, influential, and smartest artists in music today and play what is more and more a vital role in their career.

Some of these artists and the creative partnerships we’ve shared have now passed the 10-year mark and in addition to professional relationships as clients, we have also gone on to become long, lasting friends with many. Its been nice to have a job that does not always feel like work when you’re friendly and care about what you’re doing and whom you are doing it for.

Prior to going to work with Bob at Twin Towers, Steve Kaul had been at Global Booking, which was the in-house booking agency of a record label called SST. It was a very influential, independent label run by punk band Black Flag. [The label] put out a lot of the bands that Steve still works with to this day, like Dinosaur Jr.

I remember Steve telling me that when he went to work for Global out of college, Chuck [Dukowski], who played in Black Flag and ran Global Booking, handed him a Rolodex of kids across the country who would put on shows. One of the first tours he booked was for Sonic Youth on SST at the time. To me, I think that Rolodex should be under glass in some museum.

Chuck, along with people like Ian MacKaye [of Minor Threat/ Fugazi] in Washington, D.C., helped create this independent network of kids across the country [that] I think was so amazing and important to so many of the bands I grew up admiring.  Those early punk and indie bands from that original network would grow in size and later be called alternative or whatever, and many of those kids that put on shows are still involved in the live music landscape today. Paul Tollett came up from that scene in the early days of Goldenvoice and you can see some of those same acts or artists playing at Coachella.

It’s nice for Jim and I, with the addition of Andrew, John, and Timmy in the past several years, to be a continuation of that history in some way.

What would you say are some highlights of your career?

I think one highlight might be talking Conor into doing seven nights at Town Hall in NYC with Bright Eyes some years ago. He was reluctant and I really had to twist his arm to do it but in the end it turned out great, thankfully. It became an event that took over NYC for that week and gained a lot of attention.

We had special surprise guests each night from the likes of Ben Gibbard, Britt Daniel, Gillian Welch, Norah Jones, Jim James, Steve Earle and even Lou Reed coming out and playing “I’m Waiting for the Man” with the band.
What do you enjoy the most about being an agent?

Well, helping an artist grow from playing for 200 at small clubs like the now-defunct Brownies in NYC to multiple nights at Radio City and to 10,000-plus people always feels pretty good.

Our artists tend to be pretty smart and involved with their teams and it’s satisfying to work together with them to build long, rewarding careers. When you find artists who will work with you on that, it’s great.