Music

Lost Map: How to build a DIY label on love, woolly hats and sheep dung

A decade on, how has record label Lost Map not only survived, but thrived on the tiny Scottish Isle of Eigg? Malcolm Jack – who's been there since the start – explains.

Lost Map label boss Johnny Lynch performing as part of new collective Weird Wave at the Eigg Community Hall during Howlin’ Fling 2023

Lost Map label boss Johnny Lynch performing as part of new collective Weird Wave at the Eigg Community Hall during Howlin’ Fling 2023. Image: Hannah Close

For the last decade I’ve helped to run isle of Eigg-based Scottish independent record label Lost Map, and been part of the exponentially growing creative collective and community which has sprung up around it. I was there at the label’s beginning, back in August 2013, when it was formed suddenly out of the unhappy ending of another label. We’re somehow still here now, as Lost Map celebrates 10 years spanning countless releases and events. Including our (roughly) biennial Eigg festival Howlin’ Fling, the latest instalment of which took place earlier this month in a life-affirming delirium of electronic beats, ceilidh dancing, sweat, tears, beers, sheep dung and hugs. 

I hope we’re still here in another 10 years. Not just because Lost Map has led me to some of the best times and friendships of my life. But because it’s taught me more than anything else about what’s important and what’s possible in music, during an age when streaming has stymied traditional revenue sources and pessimism too often seems to reign. I thought I’d try to gather up some things I’ve learned here, in a spirit of hopefully inspiring others who might follow Lost Map’s resolutely DIY path. A path paved with love, and sheep dung.

At the heart of the label is its founder-director Johnny Lynch, who also goes under the artist alias Pictish Trail (six albums of infectious psychedelic croft-pop and counting). Lynch lives on Eigg with his partner Sarah Boden, an ex-London music journalist gone back to her roots as a sheep farmer. I’m part of a small core team who support him remotely from different corners of Scotland and beyond. My role mainly being composing press materials, plus regular nonsense-filled newsletters (208 instalments and counting). 

The wild and magical Eigg has a population of only around 100, and has been in community ownership since 1997 following a groundbreaking buy-out from a neglectful laird. Sustainability, egalitarianism and creativity are guiding principles of life – principles which in turn shape Lost Map. Through the power of broadband internet, a semi-reliable CalMac ferry service, and a lot of tea, I am endlessly amazed at how much Lynch achieves. Far from a major supermarket, much less a major music industry power centre like London.

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Our roster – which like our events, is based on an even gender split – is a playlist shuffle of stuff we simply like, bound together by shared ethos more so than genre. Everything from LT Leif’s hushed alt-folk to Alexia Avina’s swirling dream-pop and the beatific acid house of SDF. Sometimes new artists find us, by sending in demos (all of which are listened to). More often we find them by pulling on a kind of invisible thread binding one musician to another. Many of our best discoveries come via recommendations from other trusted artists. Nobody knows music like musicians. Who’d have thought it?

Lost Map artists aren’t storming the charts (yet), but their achievements are growing. Righteous cosmic-jazz wizard Alabaster dePlume has toured the world and seen one of his songs prominently sampled by Bon Iver and, in turn, Kendrick Lamar. Winchester’s finest purveyor of featherlight guitar grooves Rozi Plain has played arenas opening for Paramore by special invitation, while “Leith’s Lou Reed”, as a reviewer once entertainingly dubbed Callum Easter, will soon support Noel Gallagher. One of our newest signings, Amy May Ellis, has streaming numbers into the millions, and she’s only getting started.

But if you’re running a label, stats and such should only confirm what you already know. Be a fan first, and being a champion comes easy. We don’t need numbers to tell us that Free Love are one of the greatest live bands ever to do it, nor that Martha Ffion is one of the most naturally gifted songwriters of her generation. The rest is simply a question of helping others realise it too.

Treat digital services as a shop window. Think physical. Much more than streaming, Lost Map depends on a modest but steady turnover of vinyl records, CDs and cassettes. And woolly hats. Among our merch range, headgear always seems to go down a storm (it’s chilly up north etc). Fellow would-be DIY labels/musicians, take note: people bloody love a hat. 

Lost Map stays afloat in massive part thanks to our subscription service, the PostMap Club. For just a few quid per month, members are sent at least three brand new tracks or EPs, in the novel format of postcards, snail mailed across the globe, original artwork on the front, unique download codes affixed on the back together with a note from the artist. Shouldn’t work, but it does. Reassuringly, membership saw its greatest boost during the pandemic, as followers rallied to help Lost Map survive. The vast majority have stayed with us since. Music fans love stuff that’s quirky, tactile and personal – a friendly handshake through the detached digital ether.

At least as important as Lynch’s ear for great music, I am prone to muse, is his instinct for great people. Our artists, like so many in the community surrounding the label, aren’t just talented, but invariably smart, funny, refreshingly no-bullshit, and eager to help build something that’s becoming increasingly greater than the sum of its parts. Ten years in, music has become a sort of social glue, and a conduit to a tiny vision of the world as we would rather it was made. Here’s to another decade of that.

A compilation CD collecting 44 tracks from the first 10 years of Lost Map is available now from lostmap.com 

Malcolm Jack is a freelance journalist

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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