[...] don't even get me started on people who want their music for free...truly mind boggling.
Maybe it is, fact remains that it is the general trend. We could speculate endlessly as to who and what promotes (or promoted) said trend, but I do not believe it would in any way put a damper on it, much less reverse it even if correctives where applied globally and cooperatively to try and supress it. It's one of those things you're better off adapting to rather than fight against.
I personally don't think CD is dead, or dying, it's still the premium medium for music. That is, for those who still want to purchase their music and own an artifact to go along with it. The use of the term artifact isn't random, because the physical support for music and all the other artwork that accompanies it is very secondary to most, fast becoming obsolete. Meanwhile some labels or bands are trying to offer a more complete experience through physical supports and greater CD packaging, the effects on sales and general interest in the product is definitely mitigated at best, and extremely costly. (Thus leading to greater financial risks for the label or promoter)
It looks grim... but the medium isn't dying, it's just transforming from a primary revenue source into a very marginal one. So, to answer the original query, if a label is there to promote and sell physical supports for music, is it still relevant? In those terms, less and less so.. or you know, especially as a 'business model' / in terms of economic relevance.
Thing is, at this present juncture, nobody (and I mean nobody, not even the big guns & captains of industry) have managed to recup in full the revenue losses from the music quickly becoming a virtual commodity.
It's really a pickle, and no one has yet figured it out, how to transform all that interest and fascination for music into $
Because the interest and the average music 'consumed' (in terms of artists listened to by the avreage user & amount of music as well) is evergrowing and as alive as it's ever been.
Now do labels have relevance artistically? sociologically? etc.
Probably more so than ever, a label comes with an ethos and very personalized means of promotion, they build a fidelity amongst likeminded customers. And let's face it, they partake in an aspect of the process of commercializing music that most artists are not interested in, have no clue how to get into, etc etc etc. They also debunk and weed out the sheer load of material out there, and chose to release the works of those they deem worthy. (However arbitrary that process may be)
But then, how can an entity assume these essential and worthwhile responsibilities if it doesn't reap and earn enough to thrive?
That's where I suspect most tiny to medium sized labels are allowed to endured based on a labour of love and sacrifices and more through "sweat & grind" than strict business planning.
The challenge is to find ways to cash in somewhere along that process of commercializing and distributing music. And I wish I had the answer to that, do I ever wish.