A: Before you get too ambitious, you should know that downloading MP3 files -- and you don't need a portable player to just listen through your computer -- will take a pretty long time (okay, that's an understatement; you'll feel yourself aging by the minute). So it's best to try to access MP3 servers during non-peak hours (i.e., daytime), or at least have other activities planned at the same time -- like, say, baking bread.
Start your digital music quest at the Lycos MP3 search engine (mp3.lycos.com), where you'll find links to practically every MP3-formatted file on the Net, searchable by artist or song name. (Incidentally, an association representing 1,300 record companies just brought legal action against Lycos's MP3-listings-providing partner -- in Norway, of all places -- for encouraging copyright piracy, but we trust you won't download anything illegal.) Its reliability guide ranks servers to get you the most dependable download, though many "four-star" sites can still only accommodate a few users at once.
At GoodNoise (www.goodnoise.com; soon to be renamed EMusic so as not to scare away classical and jazz fans) you can purchase downloadable music (99 cents a song, $8.99 for a whole CD), and score the occasional free track, from artists like Frank Black and Little Richard and labels like Rykodisc and spinART, as well as from hundreds of unsigned bands. MusicMatch (www.musicmatch.com) offers a similar service and invites artists to upload their tunes to help expand its collection. Of course, you'll find the largest selection of free music (over 18 million possible downloads) at MP3.com (www.mp3.com), where you can also sample song snippets in RealAudio (a so-called "streaming-audio" format, which you can listen to instantly, in real time) and even catch the controversial, exclusive release of Ice-T's new single, "Don't Hate the Playa."