A large-scale recurring experiment that brings together diverse Cleveland musicians and forces them to form new bands on the spot with people they've never played with and may never even have met before, Lottery League serves as one of this city's signature music events. Bands form at a staged draft that ensures no two musicians have ever played together prior to the formation of their Lottery League band.
The "rules" go something like this: Each new group gets two months to come together, develop their band's identity and practice for the Big Show that takes place on April 16 at the Agora. The bands aren't paid for the gig, but it's treated as a serious showcase and organizers anticipate a crowd that will fill both the Agora's large theater and its smaller ballroom.
Planning for the festival began last September, when the "Council of Chiefs" assembled to start recruiting musicians and finding sponsorship money.
"Our work in September was to put things in place so we could do this for the next 50 years and can keep going," says founder Jae Kristoff one recent afternoon at Loop, the Tremont coffee shop and record store. Co-founder Michael Pultz joined him for this interview. "Wherever we might go, it will still keep going on."
The Council went through a transformation this year as co-founder Ed Sotelo stepped away from Lottery League, leaving Pultz and Kristoff to put the event together. They then recruited other local graphic designers and videographers to help them, expanding the Council to "nine strong."
"We knew for our own sanity, there's so much work," says Pultz. "We've had 399 musicians and 147 bands in it over the years. It's such a big undertaking. It belongs to everybody who's been a part of it — the audiences and musicians — and we want to ensure it lasts. The only way to keep it going is to expand the council. We have a webmaster and a software designer and a videographer. This is what they do for a living, and they're in the Lottery League. It's a great networking experience. We want people from jazz and classical and electronic and noise and gospel. When you cast a net that wide, it takes some time to make people know what they're a part of."
In early February, to help build anticipation for this year's Big Show, organizers hosted a media mixer at ABC Tavern to debut the new trailer created by local videographer Lauren Voss. The video promoted a fundraiser and the "draft" that took place at the Beachland Ballroom. On Feb. 5, organizers then hosted a special showcase fundraiser at the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern featuring 2013 Lottery League bands Queen of Hell and Hiram-Maxim (aka Kill It with Fire). The "draft" that placed the musicians in their respective new bands took place on Feb. 6 at the Beachland Ballroom.
"Everything was awesome," says Pultz of the events leading up to the Big Show. "It was our best draft ever just for the entertainment value of it. We had our selection night at Yorktown Lanes this year, and that was the best bowling night/slot selection we've had. We're trying to make sure it's established, and we want to appeal to the talented bands that are active in the scene; to draw them away from their own projects, we gotta make it as fun as hell. The musicians have told us that they want to be challenged creatively, and there's no greater challenge than this."
The Lottery League actually grew out of The Land of Buried Treasure, a studio project that featured a rotating core of members: During one session, Kristoff had a different person come in every hour for 72 straight hours and record music. He wanted to do something else in that vein, and friend and local musician Sotelo had posted a long rant on MySpace about the lousy music he had seen the night before and about how he thought all the city's bands should break up and be part of a sports-like draft. That led to the formation of the Lottery League; in 2008, organizers hosted the first draft night at the Asterisk Gallery in Tremont. Some 33 bands formed in 2008, and another 33 bands formed in 2010. The 2013 Big Show featured 42 bands.
While Los Angeles has hosted a Lottery League of its own, the concept seems to thrive in Cleveland.
"In Cleveland, you can get anywhere in a short amount of time," says Kristoff. "There are lots of places to practice. We strategically have this time between Groundhog Day and April Fool's Day where the weather is pretty shitty and bands need something to do."
Kristoff says Cleveland bands have always been open to collaboration too. During a recent panel discussion, panelists said that Cleveland bands tend to want to collaborate because they're usually not signed to record labels or management deals that would constrict them.
"We don't have that infrastructure of a Nashville or New York or L.A. and even a Chicago and San Francisco, where things are very competitive; we're removed from that," says Pultz. "The work and effort we put into this to attract musicians of different breadths can work anywhere, but with the lack of professional elements of the labels and things like that, bands have the freedom."
Both Kristoff and Pultz say that this year's Big Show will top previous ones.
"We've always tried to put on as big an event as possible," says Pultz. "The venues will look uniquely different. We're working with [lighting and production gurus] Chuck Karnack from All Go Signs and Ryan Foltz — two guys who will find a way to make it work if you bring them an idea. Lagunitas wants to blow out the place. We describe it as a carnival and game show and they're on board. We want it to be as over-the-top as possible. So many of the things we wouldn't have considered in 2008 are things we can embrace now. If we can put on a great thing with musicians, we know we'll get more musicians in the future. We are so re-invigorated this season."