Station founder Francois Vaxelaire chats with us about collaborating with the local priest, sweet-talking the New York City administration and their recent activation event on Times Square.
Presenting with a humble and warm demeanour, Francois is the friendly face behind The Lot. Hailing from Belgium and having lived in Brooklyn since 2010, Francois has always been enamoured by music. The sonic underbelly of the largest city in the English-speaking world particularly seduced him however – and this whirlwind love affair between him and New York City is where the journey of The Lot began.
“I was initially working in photography and video for my first four or five years in New York. But I have been deeply passionate about music since I was a kid. Since I arrived here, I was so impressed by the diversity of the scene, especially the revival of electronic music, and the sheer energy of the venues. It is just so impressive.”
On the surface, it seems like a classic tale of a quest for meaning. His escapades into subculture serving as an artful balsam to the post-industrial malaise which strikes us all, particularly when submerged in the endless colossal murk of a place whose people move so quickly that life becomes a vacuous blur. However, upon closer examination, it appears that in 2015 the triangulation of Francois’ newfound Ikigai, his deep affection for music and his observation that this metropolis was missing something coalesced into something extraordinary in the Belgian’s mind.
Francois’ early years in New York were spent exploring the countless different scenes and collectives which exist around the city. Despite him now being firmly positioned at the confluence between these milieux, he is still enraptured by the city; in awe of its indisputable status as a paragon of artful multiplicity and the magical creations that come about as a result. This realisation of New York’s omnipresent musicality further underscored his disbelief that the city did not pay host to a high quality, strictly independent online radio station. Despite having his voracious musical appetite quenched in all directions offline he just could not find a proper platform to listen to online.
Luckily for New Yorkers (and indeed the international listening community), Francois’ puzzlement at this absence metamorphosed at the just the right place and just the right time, as he was taking a ruminative stroll through Williamsburg. “I just found this rather mysterious triangle while I was walking in my neighbourhood. Me and my neighbours were like ‘who owns it?’ And I just saw this billboard advertising for a food truck with a number to call. And something just clicked… I then knew it. This is the home for underground radio in NYC.”
This random lot at the intersection of three streets just north of McCarren Park had been vacant for 40 years. Francois’ mind was bubbling. His initial vision was, like all the greatest ideas, simple: “I wanted to create a sacred place for music to live, to serve the community of DJs and creators who shared an irrational love of music.”
He was confident he could pull this off, and proceeded to ask around amongst his DJ friends before embarking on what he describes as ‘the biggest risk of my life.’ “I spoke to a few people in the industry to basically check that I wasn’t crazy. They all agreed that New York needed this.” Driven purely by passion and a desire to serve the community, Francois packed in the rest of his career in one fatal swoop. “I basically really jumped onboard with this idea, and switched to working only on that. I knew that New York needed this, and I started by signing the lease for the space.”
As an immigrant on a visa, like so many others Francois was afraid of getting kicked out. It was a year of resistance from the authorities before the broadcaster could finally start playing music. He realised that he was a small fish in a very big pond. The city administration is chronically overwhelmed and just didn’t have time to entertain ideas.
At this point of desperation, a magical turn came, and it seems that Francois was gifted a karmic return of sorts for his benevolent vision. “What really was a turning point was when I would explain my vision to a random person in an office somewhere and the idea would just resonate with them. Music lovers exist everywhere and these wonderful people helped us to make the dream a reality. Ultimately this project was only possible because of the kindness and assistance of other music lovers in the community, specifically the NYC administration!”
Starting an independent radio station is a complex and demanding task. Nurturing it and ensuring it survives without sacrificing autonomy requires serious perseverance and stratagem.
“From the start I knew we didn’t want to run things the way Boiler Room and NTS work, where a lot of the revenue is linked to brands and brand activation. I love what they are doing, but it is a different model from the one we have. The streaming has to be protected and totally music-orientated, I always knew it had to be free and unrestricted in this way.”
The overheads of running an independent radio station are sky high, regardless of any ethical imperative. Ultimately, The Lot needed a revenue stream in order to survive and serve the community.
“I thought to myself, as long as the music policy is free and the stream is protected from commercialism, then we can do an honest business parallel to that, that also is totally transparent and serves the community. I spoke to a few food trucks, and realised that this approach would be too complicated. So we decided to do our own food kiosk, and sell honest coffee and honest wine at a good price to fellow music lovers in the neighbourhood.”
Let’s not forget that New York is a crazy city where a standard glass of wine is 14 dollars. The Lot however serves beers at 4 dollars a pop – and the prices have not changed for five years. Such resistance against outright monetisation is truly a testament to Francois and his values.
“It is important for us to be a real entity, a real place where everyone in the public is welcome to visit everyday. Not some private studio tucked away in some building in Bushwick.”
Purpose and meaning
Francois is measured and philosophical when reflecting on the purpose of The Lot, the project that he has dedicated his life to in order to serve the community.
“Music is sacred and universal. This project is designed to speak to those people who live and breathe music – I wanted to create a platform that protects them and gives them legitimacy and visibility. DJs in NYC are struggling like so many artists since COVID-19, and they only really can work at night, surrounded by alcohol. I wanted to give them a little house during the day where they can drink tea on the sofa instead of a beer standing by a subwoofer at 3am.”
Francois frequently refers to transparency, and clearly considers this an exceptionally important element of the broadcaster’s identity. “Unfortunately much of the radio in the US just seems a little oppressive and hyper – I cannot connect with it and neither can my friends. It is just too commercially orientated.”
His dedication to the welfare of visiting DJs is also notable. “The time that every single DJ spends here is so special, and the radio is my life. I am so grateful for my role. The studio and the space is meticulously cared for, because the guests give so much – they deserve to feel absolutely welcomed and cherished. That’s our role. We are a pillar of the online community, as well as a pillar of our neighbourhood and they are equally important to us.”
A new home
During May 2021, Francois and the team had the pleasure of taking over an iconic K67 kiosk (designed in 1966 by Saša J. Mächtig) in Times Square for a full-blown The Lot residency. A ream of special guests performed in the kiosk during the month including Perel, Kim Ann Foxman, Quantic and Suzi Analogue. “It was symbolically a way to show that life was coming back in the city after a traumatic year.”
The Lot had done a similar activation on Times Square in 2018, made possible by Times Square Arts, a non-profit organisation that invigorates the world-famous intersection with a cultural programme year round. Francois was keen to sing the praises of the ADAM Audio T8Vs, which took care of monitoring duties for the entire residency.
“We were so excited to take the T8Vs down and set them up there. I was super impressed with them. The bass is deep and clean, and many DJs noticed and preferred them to our old system, much cleaner for sure. We will always use these when we are doing a remote activation in the future.”
Francois and his team have taken The Lot on tour around the world many times but are looking forward to exploring the USA over the coming months.
“We will just take the mobile studio and go to record shops to play a few songs and do a party at night. We already visited Washington D.C which was so fun, and soon we are going to Detroit. It will be so nice to investigate this country after doing so many international parties. We also hope to do a few more parties in the church next door, we’ve already collaborated a few times as we get on really well with the priest!”
We spoke to The Lot as part of the ADAM Audio Community Radio series, a new project exploring the worlds of broadcasters and their journey with ADAM Audio products.