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For a task like this I would go for a really minimal distribution and build up from that base. Something like Tinycore/Microcore or a Slitaz CLI-only install.
If you want to learn something from this, LFS can also be an option.
I would avoid any distro that insists on starting you up in X-windows. Since you want to automate the entire process and run headless, X would just be a hindrance. If you don't install X your system requirements will be minimal, and you should have no problem with a 500mhz processor.
mpg321 is a nice little command line mp3 player that can read from a play list file. It is available with most Linux distributions, and Slackware provides it as part of its AP series of packages. It shouldn't be too hard to configure it to run when you boot your computer.
This whole thing is really turning out to be quite simple. I merely added the following line to /etc/rc.d/rc.local
mpg321 -Z -q /fat-d/SoundFiles/*.mp3 &
I am now greeted with a musical login prompt when I boot my computer, and the computer will shuffle play my mp3s until I kill the job. All you really have to do is install your mp3s to a convenient directory, configure mpg321, and add the line to your startup file which may vary depending on the distro you use. Once you get it working you can remove your monitor.
Since the computer probably will not need a connection to the internet I would guess that security doesn't play a role. So my suggestion is to take an old Linux-version like Slackware 10.
Also don't forget, that such an old machine is not very efficient in electric power-consumption and my be relatively loud (compared with modern hardware).
All regards to Slackware, but I think that for a task as simple as that it is still overload. You just need Tinycore with Alsa and mpeg321 installed, it will run from RAM and shouldn't need more than 20-30 MB on harddisk.
Thanks for your replies everyone!! Lots of useful info in there to work through.
Markus - Your correct that it will be totally stand-alone, no Internet, so security is not important. Noise wont matter as it will be far enough away and connected to an PA system, nor will energy efficiency, it will mostly be powered by a generator.
Controls - The controls dont worry me, however what about safe shutdown? can i just turn it off, or can I have a distro where i can configure the power button or keyboard to shutdown?
it looks like mpg321 is the way forward, with the startup code as mentioned.
I looked into geexbox, but didnt seem to be a way to make it automatically play music....
Thanks again, if anyone has any more ideas let me know!