A recent Coupeville High School graduate is using skills he developed over the COVID-19 pandemic to forge a future in the music industry.
Eighteen-year-old composer Grant Steller has already had his work featured in short films and video games and is even in the process of scoring his first feature length film.
The secret to his success? Social media marketing.
Steller was born and raised in Coupeville. While composing has been a recent pursuit of Steller’s, he developed his love for music at a young age.
“I was one of those kids that’d be banging pots and pans,” he said.
When his mother got tired of that, Steller joked, she got him a piano and eventually signed him up for lessons. He took to it immediately — at his recitals, when people would ask his mom how she got him to practice so much, she would reply that she couldn’t get him to stop practicing, Steller said.
In sixth grade, he joined the school band as a trombonist. Throughout middle school, he learned how to play several different instruments, including trumpet, French horn and flute. When he entered high school, he was wondering what to do with all these different instruments he could play when the pandemic hit.
In-person learning came grinding to a halt. The abrupt and unexpected transition to online classes was jarring for Coupeville School District, and during that period, students were left with a lot of free time, Steller remembered.
For him, that became a time to focus on music. He downloaded a digital audio workstation and began fiddling with composing music online. During this time, he also joined a Discord server for composers that would eventually lead him to his first opportunity in the film composing industry.
An animator had posted in the server looking for someone to help him animate a project he was working on. Steller reached out and asked whether the animator needed a composer for his film — and as luck would have it, he did.
The animated project, a musical titled “My Friend Fabian,” is still in the works three years later. It has come with a learning curve for Steller, who said he abides by a “fake it ‘til you make it” philosophy when it comes to finding composition work.
“I didn’t know what I was doing at that point, but I acted like it,” he said with a laugh.
That was only the beginning of Steller’s using social media to locate other composing projects. He began reaching out to filmmakers online and upgraded his software to ensure he could deliver high quality sound. Steller writes mainly orchestral and big band style compositions, entirely digitally.
As opportunities arose, Steller said he would learn the necessary skills as he went along. So far, it’s worked out in his favor.
Some of the most important skills in the industry are networking and self-promotion. Steller began creating content about composing for Instagram and TikTok and has had several posts go viral, allowing filmmakers to discover him.
Social media is a hotbed for dedicated young creatives, Steller said. Filmmakers and producers, such as TikTok-famous Elijah Anthony Feigner, have reached out to him and invited him to score their projects.
Feigner, also from Washington, won best cinematography at the All American High School Film Festival in 2022 for his short film “Clairvoyant.” Steller said Feigner contacted him and asked him to score his latest short film, “Home Burial,” which will be going to festivals soon.
Steller also worked with Feigner on a short film entitled “Pickles.” Steller said Feigner had been working with another composer on the film who dropped out of the project at the last minute. With one day left before the deadline to submit to a film festival, Feigner reached out to Steller and asked for his help.
Steller scored the entire film in one day, composing nine minutes of music for the 12-minute short film, and Feigner submitted the film with minutes to spare before the deadline, Steller said.
His several collaborations with Feigner led to Steller landing his first feature film gig. Diego Andaluz, the producer for “Home Burial,” asked Steller to score his two-hour science fiction film, “Limbo.”
This project is still in the early stages, Steller said; though he can do a lot of planning ahead of time, film composition happens mostly in post production, once the film is “picture locked,” meaning all the frames are set in stone how they will appear in the final product. At this point, Steller said, the composer and the director sit down together and review the film, and that’s when Steller’s main work begins.
What sets Steller apart as a film composer is that he starts every project from a blank slate. Many composers will use a template, Steller said, but he prefers to view each new project as its own world and start completely from scratch, giving each film he works on its own unique sound.
Steller also takes on commissioned projects, such as custom compositions or arrangements for special occasions. After a video of his orchestral arrangement of SZA’s “Kill Bill” went viral on TikTok, a couple from Texas reached out and asked Steller to arrange a medley of Disney songs for them to dance to at their wedding. Steller said it’s been one of his favorite projects to date.
Next fall, following a gap year to focus on freelance projects, Steller will begin a year-long film composing trade program at UCLA. For now, the composer lives with his family at their Coupeville farm, Ocean Bluff Farm, where Steller raises a flock of pigeons when he isn’t working on his music.
Steller said his parents have been incredibly supportive of his creative endeavors, despite, as he admitted with a laugh, film composing not being the most stable of professions.
“Success in art isn’t monetary. It’s with yourself,” he said. “You have to be creating stuff you love with people you like.”