Career Path: From grad school dropout to Hollywood acclaim | Crain's Philadelphia

Career Path: From grad school dropout to Hollywood acclaim

Photo courtesy of Eric Boulanger

Eric Boulanger founded The Bakery, an audio mastering studio, in 2015 on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City.

A classically trained violinist and engineer, Boulanger has worked with artists such as Neil Young, Green Day, Selena Gomez and Olivia Newton-John to master their work for mass consumption. Several of his mastering projects have been Grammy winning or nominated, including songs from the recent blockbuster film "La La Land."

Boulanger spoke with Crain's about his early career and how he manages his company today. 

Q: What’s your background with music?

A: I was always a violinist. I was trained classically, always studying the violin. Music was always what I was doing.

[In undergrad] I had a start-of-life crisis. What was happening was I didn’t want to go to a conservatory anymore. It was all old news and I made the decision, to my parent’s dismay, that I would go to a university and not a conservatory because I would be studying music and something else. I ended up going to Carnegie Mellon because it was the best school that accepted me.

I always had an idea and an understanding of what made me happy and what I wanted to do. I think that’s overlooked by a lot of people; not everyone gets to have that. And I don’t know where it came from, I just knew when I walked into a recording studio, I was like “this is totally for me.” I had no idea why. So being able to pursue that led me to academics and out to L.A.

Q: Tell me about your early start in the industry.

A: My first internship opportunity, my first professional break, was being the first ever intern for Capitol Studios, in between junior and senior year of college. Skipping a little bit forward I ended up getting hired by an absolute legend in the industry. His name was Doug Sax. I worked for him and his company called the Mastering Lab. So I got an incredible job at the top of the field almost right off the bat, which was both luck and work.

Nonetheless, when I first started I had the bright idea that if I don’t do a master’s [degree] now, I never will. And I was right about that part. My thinking at the time was, "If I do a master’s now, I can defer loans," which, I would love to point out how bad of an idea that is. I ended up going to USC for some form of a music business type degree, but to say that program was mundane to me is a real understatement. It was just so mundane. The whole program to me was so obvious and the main thing that was dragging me down was the time commitment. And I’m happy to say that I’m a graduate school dropout. I made it a semester and a half.

Q: How did you make the decision to drop out?

A: I remember the day... I was involved with [assisting] one of Doug (Sax's) close friends and colleagues. They wanted me to be doing the grad degree and everything. I was going [to school] every Tuesday and Thursday evening, and this happened to be one of those days.

When it came five o’clock, they said to me, “Eric, you’ve got to go to school, you’ve got to make it on time.” And not one iota of me wanted to go. It felt like they were my parents telling me it’s time to go to school. But of course,  I go, and then it was the most ridiculous class I’ve ever experienced where I literally argued with the professor. We hit our break, I packed up my stuff and I never returned to USC. It’s very dramatic, I know.

Q: What did you take away from that experience, if not a master’s degree?

A: I would say my one early on mistake was not specifically [attempting] a master’s degree, but conforming to normality and what others are doing. If I had spent all of 10 minutes really thinking about what was going on and where I was and what I was doing, it probably would have been very obvious that [it] wasn’t necessary. And a very large waste of money. USC is not cheap.

But it’s the only thing a for-profit school can do. All they can do is promise the best education and then because of it, you’re going to have some sort of job. Simplistic, but that’s the idea. And it couldn’t be more wrong. There’s almost zero fields on this planet where that can be a guarantee. To me, education is what you make of it

[After dropping out] my biggest a-ha moment was knowing, “OK, now you’ve got to focus and hunker down. You’re in the real world. You’re in an iconic studio with an amazing opportunity.”

At the Mastering Lab at that time, I was definitely the newcomer and lowest on the totem pole. But it’s all about whether or not you have your foot in the door, and I did.

Q: Was there any other point in your career that you would return to and change something you did, or a decision you made?

A:  I think that’s a fact of the type of work that we do. It’s a creative role, an artistic role. My job, what brings in the bread, is working on albums. It’s artistic and creative. So just like the work we do has no right or wrong, so does the journey. Of course we all have hard times or projects or clients that don’t work out, nightmare situations, but that’s all part of it.

Q: Do you have any kind of philosophy that you follow to help manage your company?

A: It’s efficiency.

When making a move or investment, I always assume the worst. And [The Bakery] was not what I expected at all. We haven’t lost a dime since opening. I attribute a lot of [it, to] where we put our money investment-wise.

With a mastering studio and starting from scratch, there’s a lot of equipment. But financially, I think the reason why everything’s working so well, is our efficiency, especially between me and my other engineer [Joanne “Jett” Galindo].

The important thing about efficiency is the obvious, which is time saving and work saving, but the even more important part is when you spend that time thinking about it and getting it right. Then you never make a mistake. And it’s the mistakes that cost more time than anything.

Follow The Bakery on Twitter @bakerymastering

Photo courtesy of Eric Boulanger

June 6, 2017 - 1:27pm