A student at Liverpool University from 1978 to 1981, Martland was awarded a Mendelssohn scholarship in 1982 that enabled him to attend the Royal Conservatory in The Hague, Holland. There he worked with composer Louis Andriessen, whose music, combining minimalism and popular music styles, became something of a model for the young composer. In 1984, he also attended the Berkshire Music Center as a composition fellow, studying with Gunther Schuller. Martland graduated from the Royal Conservatory in 1985, the same year he won a Dutch Government Composition Prize. Even in early compositions like 1981's Remembering Lennon (based on Lennon's "Imagine"), Martland showed his sympathy with popular music. But his first work to attract international attention was the orchestral piece Babi Yar (1983), jointly premiered by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and St. Louis Symphony. Eventually, however, Martland came to reject the orchestra for sociopolitical reasons, preferring instead to work with student ensembles and non-classical performers like the British jazz orchestra Loose Tubes, the Maarten Altena Octet (for which he wrote Remix in 1986), and singer Sarah Jane Morris (who premiered his set of three songs Glad Day at the 1988 Holland Festival).
Martland's political views gained him some attention and were incorporated into works like Albion, aired on BBC-TV in December 1988, which combined music, texts, and film in an attack on Margaret Thatcher's Britain and its cultural legacy. Ecology was the subject of another multimedia piece from 1988, the "video-theater" work Terra Firma.
In 1992, he formed the Steve Martland Band -- an 11-piece, amplified ensemble of saxophones, brass, guitars, violin, keyboards, and percussion -- to perform his music. He continued to collaborate with performers, such as the rock group Spiritualized, for whom he wrote Terminal (1998), and percussionist Evelyn Glennie. Some of Martland's works have also been choreographed, such as Dance Works (1993), commissioned by the London Contemporary Dance Theatre. Martland instituted and ran Strike Out, an annual composition course for school children, and he served as artistic director of the Society for the Promotion of New Music between 2000 and 2002. Steve Martland died in his sleep on May 5, 2013; he was 53 years old.