‘I still make money from Teenage Kicks’
Feargal Sharkey was a teenager delivering televisions before he found fame with hit song ‘Teenage Kicks’, he tells John Wright
Feargal Sharkey, 59, became the lead singer of the Undertones in 1975, finding fame with singles such as Teenage Kicks and My Perfect Cousin. Becoming a solo singer in 1983, his song A Good Heart was an instant worldwide hit in 1985, reaching Number 1 on the singles chart in Britain and other countries.
In the early Nineties he moved into the business side of the music industry, working for Polydor Records and the Radio Authority. From 2008 to 2011 he was the head of UK Music. Today he lives in north London.
How did your childhood influence your attitude to money?
I came from a family of 10 children in Derry, Northern Ireland, at a time when there was about 60pc unemployment among men. My father was an electrician, so the fact that he had steady employment was somewhat extraordinary. But there was never a lot of money.
Everything was from one month to the next and things were incredibly well managed by my parents. I can still hear my father’s immortal words: “If you can’t afford to pay cash, you can’t afford it.”
What was your first paid job?
That would be the rather gloriously titled “Installation Engineer” and “Linesman Assistant Junior”. In plain English it meant I delivered televisions for a living. It was 1976-77, I was 18 and I was paid the princely sum of £7.01 per week. And I can assure you I checked that damn pay packet every week to make sure that penny was in there.
Are you a saver or a spender?
Both, some of it kind of enforced. I’m the second youngest, so there was a finely honed system where the minute I appeared in the doorway on Friday evening my mother would be in the hallway demanding her £5 housekeeping money from my £7 wages. So I learnt to manage money quickly.
No doubt I objected furiously but she was the traditional Irish matriarch and you did not want to get into that kind of conversation with her. You were not going to win.
It taught me a good life skill: when to walk away from an argument.
Do you use cash, debit cards or credit cards?
I use all three. Most days I can be found in front of a cash machine. I appreciate that contactless payment is a glorious thing, but I worry it’s a devious ploy by the banks to get us to spend more money without actually realising what the hell it is we’re getting up to.
Have you invested in the property and stock markets?
Yes. My advice is, if you invest in the stock market make sure you’ve got 30 or 40 years to wait around and don’t worry about what happens in the next six weeks.
As for property, I live in London, which is always a fairly safe bet. I bought my home and a number of homes over the years. My parents owned their home where I grew up, which was very unusual.
With my first house I slightly cheated. I was 19 or 20 and in a band called the Undertones, which became successful rather quickly. We were advised to get a mortgage and benefit from the tax relief. By then we had a firm of accountants in London, Martin Green, who remained my accountants for years. It was solid professional advice to a group of overly excited Irishmen.
Have you ever had trouble paying your bills?
Probably in the early days with the Undertones when I realised I had a mortgage, then the joys of council tax and the rest. Like for plenty of young people today, there may well have been the odd fishing expedition down the back of the sofa, looking for that errant fiver.
Which period of your life has been the most lucrative?
I imagine that whole solo period. I think A Good Heart sold around a million copies in this country alone. I don’t know what that translates to in money, but slightly more than
£7.01 a week.
What have been your best and worst financial decisions?
My best was to make a record called Teenage
Kicks. The Undertones still own all the rights to everything we ever did, and I’m pleased to say that it does OK. It still keeps coming in, and my thanks to everybody involved for all the applause and encouragement over the years.
My worst was buying a classic car 10 years ago and realising the supposedly £5,000 restoration was suddenly going to blossom into an awful lot more. Then my good old upbringing kicked in and we parted company.
Does money make you happy?
It helps but contentment invariably involves a lot of more philosophical stuff about your friends, family and loved ones. I’ve been happy when I’ve had nothing and I’ve been happy when I’ve had a bit more.
What is the best way to stay successful?
In terms of business: constantly reinvent, reinvigorate, keep going, pushing, rejuvenating yourself. It’s very easy to become stale and lacklustre. For me it’s always been a constant process of self-analysing. In the modern world it’s about self-satisfaction and knowing I did something really well today.
Some say we may have seen the last album to sell in the millions as fewer people are buying them. Is this true?
Look at Ed Sheeran’s record sales in the first four days after his new album was released in March. It’s off the scale [672,000 album sales]. Are people going to stop reading books?
Is Britain’s commercial music industry thriving?
Yes. The British music industry is the second most successful in the world. All that starts with young people sitting in rooms with a musical instrument. You can buy an Apple laptop that comes with an extraordinary programme called Garageband to make records and within minutes upload music to Youtube. You can make money as long as you can get enough people to listen to it.
It’s also become tougher because the last time I looked I think people upload about 300 hours of video to Youtube every minute. So when you are uploading your video so are half a million other artists.
What is the Salute Music Makers competition and how will it change the music industry?
The idea is that anybody can create a piece of music within minutes; whether it’s any good is another issue. On a website, platform or app they can expose their music to an audience of billions. The competition provides young people with the ability, and the winner receives £50,000 in cash, no strings attached.
As head of UK Music was your lobbying for copyright protection successful?
Yes. Before The Digital Economy Act  the online music world was the Wild West. You could download all the music you wanted for free.
Youtube now has licences with the music industry. If you’ve signed a contract with a record company, unless you specifically excluded the digital rights, it’s up to the record company to negotiate that deal and decide whether they want your music on an online service. Some acts agree, some don’t.
And did you help reduce digital piracy?
Substantially. There was a coordinated approach across the British music industry. More important was how much more business opportunity we created, moving from the Wild West to Spotify, which now has 50million subscribers, many paying £9.99 a month. So the mechanism’s created where Spotify, its investors, record companies, music publishers and artists all get paid.
Feargal Sharkey: ‘I was in a band called the Undertones, which became successful rather quickly.’ Right, in 2014