Chips and salsa? Check. Balloons and streamers? Check. Music? Uh...

Every good host knows that a party is only as good as its music. The right music can mean the difference between a memorable party and a dismal, boring failure. To set your fete to music, why not burn special discs just for your party that will set the tone for the whole affair. Downloading music off the Internet is easy and more economical than buying individual CDs. Here's how:

Where can I get some rockin' party music?

These sites offer services that are legal, more popular, and will cost you for each file you download:

Apple iTunes : The dominant site and easiest to navigate.

: The cheapest per song price at $0.49 each.

: The upstart turned pro.

AllOfMp3 : Russian, but perfectly legit. Charges by bandwidth and not per song, so you can nearly always get more value for money. You can choose lower quality files if you want to get more for the same money, or higher quality files if you're willing to pay more for the quality.

These are the file sharing programs that are usually illegal as you are not paying for any licensed music that you download, and thus are committing copyright infringement:

Soul Seek : Best at finding music and downloading quickly, best at organizing groups of friends and browsing their files.

KaZaA : Spyware and Adware riddled, but the most popular out there

LimeWire : Good software, but not the best network, leads to many incomplete downloads

Others exist, eDonkey, Epitonic, etc., but the three above are the most distinct or best at their networks. (annabelle says, "Be careful and don't hold us responsible if the Recording Industry Association of America comes after you.")

What's legal and illegal about downloading?

It's legal to download music from most paying sites as these are licensed to the copyright holders. It's legal for you to move music you've downloaded to devices you own and to create backups in the form of CDs, etc. It's illegal for you to download music from file sharing programs (known as peer to peer networks) and not pay for it if the music is covered by license. The crime you will be committing is copyright infringement. You have created a copy of something without the permission of the owner and without having fair reason to (i.e. creating a backup of something you own).

What kind of gadget does one need to do it (if using a PC or a Mac)?

To download music, you need just the software listed at the links above if software is required at all. Though there many pieces of software that you might choose to use over the default. You also need the most updated version of your system software (OS X or newer for Mac and Windows 2000 for PC) and a DSL line. (Time to upgrade from dial-up!)

For playing music on Windows, Win Amp is the best audio player out there, has been for years! Playing music on a stereo? Just buy a cable to go from your sound card to stereo but if you really want a gadget to do it for you and have money to burn, then you might like to consider the Squeezebox if you're on Windows or the Airport Express if you're on a Mac.

How much is it to download a song?

Legally, the cheapest per song rate is $0.49 from Apple has set the average rate at $0.99 per song. Keep in mind: If you're considering downloading an entire album with 15 songs, you could be paying almost $15. Why pay more than the album would cost as a physical CD? So think about purchasing music according to the length of the tracks, and the quality of encoding, rather than a per song rate. This way you can download a lower quality file for a "song of the moment" type track and get a higher quality file for something you want to keep for ages.

Now that I know how to download, what do I download?

Downloading music is the easy part, folks. The hard part is sitting in front of your computer screen trying to summon up bands and song titles to search for. The Apple i-Tunes store does have extensive tools to help hapless listeners figure out what to buy and burn. For the average listener though, figuring out what to play at a party can be especially daunting. To paraphrase John Cusak in High Fidelity, making the perfect mix CD is a science. Instead of giving you formulas to memorize, we asked our friend Robert Emrich, a self-described "regular partygoer, and someone who used to work in a music store (and who owns over 300 CDs as a consequence)" to give us his ideal mix:

This should get your party started. Now, about those pants...

-Compiled by Alisa Welch and Sarah Thurmond with additional reporting from David, Chris, and Len (who don't wish to be identified, only loved).


Party Issue Features:

:: History's Greatest Parties ::
:: Your First Dinner Party ::
:: Getting In With the In Crowd::
:: The Truth About Frat Parties ::
:: Miss Dixie Longate Throws a Mean Tupperware Party ::
:: It's Not Strange To Throw Your Dog a Party ::
:: How To Set The Whole Thing To Music ::

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