Johnson says he’s been thinking about ending the series for two years. “This is all about progression,” he says. “You have to move on.” He hadn’t yet scheduled any performers for this season, he says.
“It was a mammoth responsibility,” he says. So was he tired of it? Not at all, Johnson says: “It’s OK to stop on top. It’s OK to say, ‘I’m doing a good job, let’s move onto the next thing.’ … After 18 years, what else do you need to prove?”
Councilman Bruce Tyler’s not mourning Fridays’ demise. Tyler has been a vocal critic of the concert series for years, ever since he discovered the city had been contributing around $200,000 annually.
Tyler says he found the funding buried in the parks and recreation budget about five years ago: “Quite frankly, it was hidden on purpose.” He questioned why the city would support the concert series when it had no clear economic benefit. (Johnson, in his statement, says the series “contributed to the economic vitality of downtown Richmond by employing over 100 seasonal and part-time workers” each year.)
Johnson, Tyler says, always contended that city money was essential to make it successful. To Tyler, the city funding seemed like “nothing more to me than a payout.” He doesn’t know yet if any money for the series had been included in the city’s budget for next year; council members get their first look at the budget March 6.
The city willingly offered its support, Johnson says. Fridays at Sunset wasn’t a cheap event to organize, he says, with some artists who charged $50,000 to $100,000 -- “You do the simple math.” But he also booked artists who drew small, older crowds, he says; “It was never about the money for us.”
Johnson says he’s proud that in more than 400 concerts in 18 years, he had “not a single public incident.” His most memorable night was a performance by the Roots in 2007 that drew more than 20,000 people.
Fridays at Sunset started in 1994 and has been held at Kanawha Plaza since 1996. It brought jazz, blues and R&B singers such as LL Cool J, Seal, John Legend and Erykah Badu. Last season tickets cost between $10 and $40, depending on the artist. Johnson says he might be willing to pass the event along to another organizer. “I’m not in opposition to that. But it requires a lot of hard work,” he warns.
And what are his plans now? While he was recently seen working in developer Ron Stallings’ Mansion Five26 restaurant, and has been rumored to be advising Stallings on potential musical events at the neighboring Hippodrome, Johnson’s not ready to talk yet. “You’ll see some stuff soon,” he says.