Publication by Subscription in the Eighteenth Century

In the eighteenth century, the publication of printed music by subscription was the only option available for those composers who wished to see their compositions in print but who either could not afford to take the finanical risk of paying for it to be printed in advance or had no patron willing to foot the bill.

Ordinarily, composers would give notice of their intention to publish by placing advertisements in newspapers in the weeks and months leading up to publication, inviting members of the public to subscribe in advance. If enough subscriptions were received, the composer would engage a music-publishing business, often in London, to produce their publication. The resulting list of subscribers would be presented as part of the edition, usually placed between the title page and the first page of music. 

Lists of subscribers are important as they shed light on the connections that existed between composers and members of the public. While there are a number of reasons as to why any individual might chose to subscribe, the reputation of the composer could be an impetus, as would a personal contact by association, or a musician’s position as a teacher to a family. Indeed, the necessity to acquire backers for their publishing ventures had a distinct advantage for composers who were also music teachers. By listing the subscribers, the composer was able to demonstrate to the purchasing public just how well connected they were, and who their clientele was. In some advertisements calling for subscribers, the composers indicated the nobility they had already secured. Lists therefore could serve as promotional advertisements that would ideally lead to the composer gaining more pupils and patrons. Subscribing was also a form of professional reciprocity whereby composers supported their colleagues in return for expected future support. It was also commonplace for music businesses to appear in lists, frequently purchasing multiple copies at a discount that could then be sold at full price in the shops. The presence of a subscription list could, itself, be a source of attraction for those who were more interested in seeing their name appear in print alongside members of the upper classes, which somtimes included royalty. For them it may not have mattered if the music turned out to be of an inferior quality.

Printed lists were not necessarily fixed entities either, with the names of any late subscribers often added by hand. If there were enough late subscribers, then a new list was sometimes printed. The Dataset includes all variant lists so far identified.

Two examples of musical works published by subscription include:

William James Porter, Two Anthems, a Sanctus, two single & two double chants (London: Preston & Son, for the author, [c. 1795]). Title page and first page of ‘The Subscribers Names’.

Pieter Hellendaal, A Collection of Psalms for the use of Parish Churchesetc, (Cambridge: [1795?]). Title page and first page of ‘Subscribers Names’.