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Paying Their Dues

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A term used in show business to describe the minor roles and drudge work one usually needs to do before hitting it big. Also called "Gopher" (Go-for) jobs, as your main task is going and getting stuff for others who are busy with more important aspects of the project.

The name comes from paying dues to a union one belongs to, but even big successes need to pay dues if they are part of a union.

Naturally applies as much, if not more so, to Real Life as well as fiction.

Compare Money, Dear Boy, because even big stars have to pay their bills. If this work is exceedingly terrible and the artist does make it big, these often become their Old Shame, often with the excuse, "I Was Young and Needed the Money." Fuel for the eventual Retroactive Recognition reaction. See also Waiting for a Break and Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job. Can also be necessary to achieve Career Resurrection if fame/high profile work was earned and then lost beforehand.


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  • Alan Jackson's "Chasin' That Neon Rainbow" is about a musician singing in bars, half the time barely breaking even due to overhead, in hopes of getting his songs on the radio. The original writer hadn't done anything with the song because it didn't represent his life; when he realized it did represent Jackson's, he offered him the song which they finished writing together.
  • The rock group Boston had a song about having paid their dues ("We were just another band out of Boston. On the road and trying to make ends meet...") which was in fact almost entirely fictional: while individual members of the group had indeed paid their dues in bar bands in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Boston as a unit was the brainchild of producer Tom Scholz, who wrote all the songs and recorded all the guitar, bass and keyboard parts in his private studio alongside Brad Delp as lead vocalist, then enlisted additional musicians to tour it.
  • Taken together, Billy Joel's songs "Piano Man" and "The Entertainer" are basically about a musician starting off playing bars and clubs, then gradually working his way up to "the idol of my age".
    • The first being about the most depressing song in the repertoire. The tune is a pleasant little waltz, but the words are all about a bunch of pathetic losers hanging around a tawdry little bar getting hammered. They're so shocked by someone with talent or potential coming into their mix that one of the song lyrics is them asking the piano man "Man, what are you doing here?"
  • "Doin' This" by Luke Combs explains that if he wasn't a big-time performer he'd still be paying his dues playing in bars trying to make it big— and that he'd be all right with that, because the most important part for him has always been playing music with his friends and connecting with the crowd.
  • Maren Morris's song "Circles Around This Town" is about her experience trying to make it in Nashville, writing a couple hundred songs to get two hits and finding that even then it doesn't get easy.
  • The song "Baby Girl" by Sugarland is from the POV of a young woman who has left her home in Flyover Country in hopes of becoming a famous musician. She starts off playing gigs at bars and such and has to ask her parents for money (and it's heavily implied that she's been sexually exploited at least once). But by the end of the song, that's all behind her; she's staying at the Ritz and is able to send her parents money.
  • Taylor Swift's officially unreleased song "Who I've Always Been" is about this, contrasting her tough life on the road with that of a glitzy rival who's had it easy. Slightly undermined by the fact that she sounds like she was about 15 when she recorded it, so it's not exactly the grizzled road-warrior song that it's trying to be.

    Professional Wrestling 
The Professional Wrestling industry had a hard-on for ensuring that wrestlers come up the pipeline naturally rather than through shortcuts. This term is used a lot in professional wrestling, partly as a need for experience, and partly as a need to understand locker room etiquette. There's a reason, after all, of why it's called "doing the job".
  • Japanese promotions such as All Japan Pro Wrestling have a Young Boy to Young Lion to "respected wrestler" system where "young boys" are forced to do the laundry and dishes of the respected wrestlers while doing thousands of pushups, sit-ups, pull-ups or such for wrestler complaints and are forced to sleep on floor mats. Young Lions get to wrestle on television but can only use a small selection of moves and are usually only allowed to beat other Young Lions. Once a Young Lion goes on a learning excursion, preferably to a foreign country where Japanese is not spoken (some like Kenta Kobayashi of Pro Wrestling NOAH luck out and end up in Brazil or something), they will generally be treated like respected wrestlers.
    • Mitsuharu Misawa is AJPW's most famous case, as even after going through all that he was booked into an excessively long losing streak to see if he would "never say die". After making it through all of that though he was then booked as an Invincible Hero and The Ace of All Japan.
  • It's practically accepted tradition that no matter how you got there, once you make it to the WWE, you're going to spend at least a year going through constant hazing, both in and out of the ring, until the veterans are satisfied you have the "mental fortitude" to make it in the business. Not as much a problem now as in the past, as WWE has moved away from hiring career jobbers and wrestlers off the street over the past twenty years. As they are the undisputed premier wrestling promotion, all other "competition" can serve as farm leagues to funnel the best talent to the top, so that even "rookies" can expect to have years of experience and polish.
  • WCW infamously started making The Giant start paying his dues after winning the world heavyweight championship (from Hulk Hogan, no less) in his debut matchnote . The only place to go was down, but in a year's time, it was hard to remember the guy was, you know, the theoretical top wrestler of the company.
  • Many wrestler guests on the reality show WWE Tough Enough seemed to be there for no other reason than to vent at the contestants as to how far they were ahead of thousands of others looking for the same break and how much they resented having to deal with these debutantes.
  • Subverted with Stacy Keibler. Stacy was hired by WCW in 1999 after winning a contest to become the new Nitro Girl. Because of this and her general attitude of "I'm only here to launch my acting career" while in the business, Bubba Ray Dudley has called her "a classic example of what happens when you don't come up in this business the right way".
  • Gail Kim describes her initial masked villain "Queen OF Cats" La Felina gimmick as a due paying experience she'd rather forget about.
  • The entire Sensacional Carlitos gimmick in IWA Puerto Rico, a merciless parody of the Island's most popular Wrestling Family, was this for the man who was given The Gimmick. This worked in more ways than one, as the fans actually liked him so much that the Colons themselves eventually booked Carlitos in their own WWC promotion and at one point even had him tag alongside Carlito Colón himself. Still, Carlitos had to go a little while before he could ditch his straw hat and start wrestling with shoes on.
  • It's commonly reported that after seeing promise in Toryumon Mexico graduate Kazuchika Okada that New Japan Pro-Wrestling sent him in TNA fully aware that they would squander their soon to be IWGP Heavyweight Champion and heir apparent of CHAOS. This being so he would appreciate getting a push from a big company after being denied such. If true, this worked a bit too well, as NJPW ended up being disappointed by his "Okato" role as Samoa Joe's Side Kick and Okada himself has little good to say about TNA, going so far as to start a parody angle of its feast or fired briefcases that had to be approved by New Japan bookers Gedo and Jado, despite the fact he made many friends among the wrestlers contracted to TNA.
  • Montel Vontavious Porter's extended jobber run in WWE was this, to make sure he was "loyal" enough to be pushed by the company after Brock Lesnar burned out and left to play football and then Bobby Lashley also burned out in addition to a conflict with part of the creative staff, before leaving for the independent circuit and Mixed Martial Arts. While MVP did eventually stop getting put on the losing end of squash matches and be allowed to win the United States Title belt, basically a mid-card title belt in WWE's structure, it became clear the company was years away from every letting him work at a high level so he left, paid his dues all over again in New Japan Pro-Wrestling and became the first holder of the IWGP Intercontinental Championship belt(which can and has been main event material in NJPW's structure).
  • John Morrison was one of WWE's odder cases, as he was made to pay his dues right when he was on the cusp of stardom in WWE, because his girlfriend pissed a lot of people off, and he pissed more people off by trying to show his loyalty to her. WWE would eventually stop playing games and get rid of him, where he would pay his dues again in AAA and rise to the top of the company, in spite of more drama over management's disputes with a different girlfriend of his.
  • In response to criticism World Wonder Ring ST★RDOM received for hiring "gravure idol" Yuzuki Aikawa as a wrestler, company founder Nanae Takahashi promised the general public a chance to see what paying your dues in pro wrestling looked like, ensuring she would personally have Aikawa's handled by the end of her debut match. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, as Aikawa was the company's most popular wrestler by the end of the year.
  • Shayna Baszler willingly worked as a jobber on the independent circuit, notably putting over Cheerleader Melissa, Nicole Matthews and the Oedo~tai stable as then lead by Act Yasukawa. Ring of Honor put her over big simply for giving professional wrestling the time of day, going so far as to making her The Man Behind the Man for Tag Team Champions reDRagon. SHIMMER booked her for a match and started counting down to it after she announced she was going to become a professional wrestler herself. Then Baszler started racking up losses in Mixed Martial Arts, and chinks in the armor of MMA's other Four Horsewomen were found, so she decided to start her in-ring career the humble way. SHIMMER still put Baszler over by the time of her first match with them (though she was the clear number 3 behind Mercedes Martinez and Nicole Savoy), and after that, she started racking up title belts across the independent circuit. These days, Baszler, now a WWE wrestler, after rampaging through the female ranks on NXT, became a featured wrestler of both Raw and Smackdown.
  • Arguably, no wrestler in the WWE got hit hard with this other than Promoted Fanboy The Miz. Coming from a reality TV show, having to endure large amounts of fan resistance due to his origins and disastrous debut, being bullied backstage by JBL and kicked out from the locker room by Chris Benoit for more than 6 months just for accidentally dripping chicken crumbs that Miz ate on his bag (following Benoit's Un-person, this was changed to a referee's bag on WWE's request)note , he was also ribbed on live television, on commentary, and by Triple H and Shawn Michaels. This is noteworthy because this ended up becoming fundamental to the story of his title run. In hindsight, this is quite surreal considering Miz has spent quite a lot of years on the main roster and is considered one of the veterans.

    Real Life (Other) 
  • High Voltage Software spent years making licensed games but did get a reputation for getting work done on time and under budget. Then they used the skills and experience they got on making The Conduit, their breakthrough game.
  • Referred to in one of the vaudeville Garfield strips. Garfield gives this as the reason why he's doing an act that universally gets shoes thrown at him.
  • Doonesbury's character Jimmy Thudpucker (Trudeau's go-to character for lampooning the music industry) once refused to do a "paid my dues" song as being pointlessly whiny, pointing out he was an overnight success at age nineteen. His agent retorts "It's in your contract." A Take That! against rock music groups with such songs.
  • In the commentary on one of the Red Dwarf DVDs, the actors talk about David Ross, the original actor for Kryten. He asked if they were "legit", meaning if they had gone to a proper acting school and paid their dues in small parts on stage before being on TV. The answer for all of them was No± , which resulted in the actor treating them with mild disdain.
  • The late, great Paul Newman's first screen appearance was a minor role in an episode of the now-forgotten sci-fi anthology Tales Of Tomorrow.
  • WayForward Technologies (named after the company in Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency) was a small-time game developer spending years making Licensed Games, except most were pretty enjoyable. Eventually, they started to work on a project which would come to be known as Shantae...
  • Stand-Up Comedy is all about paying your dues as a performer. Aspiring comics will scrabble for open-mic slots or do menial jobs at comedy clubs (such as working the door or handing out fliers) in the hope that they can work the back room and eventually get a shot at the main stage. From there, they must work up from MC (compere in British comedy) to opener to main to headliner all while sticking to brutal touring schedules . While it's OK for bigger-name comics to make introductions and help friends get slots, it's unacceptable for people to scheme and politic their way through the business to try and find a shortcut up the ladder.
  • Shounen Hollywood is all about this trope. The group is just small-time and localized to one theater venue, so in order to spread the word, they have to do meet and greets, advertise themselves on small-time television, pass out fliers, and other similar activities. The same was true of the group's predecessors before a few of them hit the big time.
  • Long before Star Wars, George Lucas's first job in Hollywood was to make a behind the scenes documentary for the long-forgotten cowboy movie Mackenna's Gold. He turned in an abstract film that was half shots of the desert and half shots of the crew